Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE - Members of the Senate gather at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City for a special session on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. Lawmakers took the first step Wednesday towards coming up with an alternative to a bill vetoed by Gov. Gary Herbert that would have emphasized speed over participation in filling unexpected congressional vacancies.

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers took the first step Wednesday toward coming up with an alternative to a bill vetoed by Gov. Gary Herbert that would have emphasized speed over participation in filling unexpected congressional vacancies.

Members of the Legislature's Government Operations Interim Committee voted unanimously to open a bill file at their first meeting during the break between annual legislative sessions.

But that's as far as the committee got on an issue that has caused friction between legislators and the governor since 2017, when then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned his 3rd Congressional District seat and Herbert set up the special election to replace him.

That election included allowing candidates to gather voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot as an alternative to the traditional caucus and convention system used by political parties.

SB123, sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, abbreviated the governor's process by eliminating the signature-gathering alternative that had been at the center of the Utah GOP's unsuccessful yearslong legal battle with the state.

Herbert said in his veto letter that the bill "signficantly" limited voter participation. Legislative leaders were unable to muster the two-thirds supportneeded in both the House and Senate to override the veto by the May 13 deadline.

Now lawmakers and the governor's office, along with county clerks, political parties and others are working on a new bill for the 2020 session that begins in late January.

"At the end of the day, this is something that's going to be complicated," the committee's Senate chairman, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said in calling for what he described as a working group.

Thatcher said lawmakers have the option of not taking up the issue during interim and waiting to see what's proposed in the upcoming general session, but he believes doing it now is the better choice.

The committee was told that Utah is one of only three states — the others are Idaho and North Dakota — that have no statutory provisions about how to handle the constitutionally required elections to fill congressional vacancies.

Other states fill vacancies within 90 days of a vacancy occurring early in a two-year U.S. House term, while others take up to 150 days or more. Fifteen states leave the process up to the governor or don't specify details.

Nominees in other states are selected by political parties or through primary elections, including some where the top two candidates are advanced regardless of party.

Until Chaffetz, now a Fox News contributor, announced he was stepping down from office months after his re-election, Utah had not had to deal with a midterm congressional vacancy since Republican Elmer Leatherwood died in office in 1929.

Later in the same committee meeting, Thatcher made unusual and unsubstantiated allegations about unspecified city council members receiving unreported campaign contributions from a lobbyist being paid "disproportionately higher" by the same city.

Thatcher did not name the officials, the lobbyist or even the city involved and said the allegations came from "a citizen." After the meeting, he declined to provide any details, saying he couldn't "talk about it without burning somebody."

The allegations were brought up during discussion of an agenda item about "accountability and transparency in local governments’ use of public funds for the purpose of lobbying the Legislature."

Several members of the committee questioned the need for the Legislature to get involved, especially since campaign finance disclosures are made to local government officials.

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Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said the allegations feel "very conspiracy theory-esque" and said Thatcher's attempt to open a bill file to address the issue was "trying to create a bill for a problem that doesn't exist."

In the end, Thatcher asked the committee staff to work with the Utah League of Cities and Towns and others to sample city council campaign disclosure forms to see how prevalent not reporting contributions and expenses actually is.

Thatcher told reporters he can find out which cities have lobbyists and how much they are paid, but "I don't know whether or not those lobbyists are then turning around and making donations to city council" members.