SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers are looking now at coming up with a process for filling unexpected congressional vacancies that looks a lot like what Gov. Gary Herbert ended up doing two years ago.
The governor established a special election process on his own to replace then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz when the 3rd Congressional District representative stepped down in 2017 and became a Fox News contributor.
That frustrated both Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, who believed the executive branch had overstepped its authority because they weren't in session to deal with the vacancy.
But Herbert vetoed their attempt earlier this year to set up a process that would have eliminated the ability of candidates to gather voter signatures for a place on the primary ballot in a special congressional election.
So members of the Legislature's Government Operations Interim Committee are trying again. On Wednesday, they heard the outlines of a bill being drafted for the 2020 Legislature described as a compromise with the governor.
There was no committee discussion on the proposal, which is expected to be debated in the committee once the bill is drafted. The committee agreed last month to open a bill fileon the issue.
"I think this is a fair agreement," Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, a co-chairman of the committee, said. Thatcher met last week with the governor's staff to work out legislation acceptable to both sides.
Thatcher acknowledged what he termed consternation over including a signature-gathering option. The option is key to separate legislative changes made to the candidate nomination process that the Utah GOP fought unsuccessfully in court.
"The fact of the matter is, I don't think we will reach a point where we will have enough support in the Legislature to overturn signatures or override the governor's veto," Thatcher said.
Legislative leaders started talking about a compromise with the governor after falling short of the needed two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate to override the veto.
The governor has "made it clear without signatures, nothing's going to pass," Thatcher told the committee, leaving them little choice in what the new bill needs to look like.
"If we pass something and it gets vetoed like this last one did, we don't have a bill. Which means the governor does essentially exactly whatever he wants. Or we can look at best practices, which I believe we have," he said.
The bill will call for maintaining the current structure, including signature gathering, while allowing the governor to shorten the time frame as needed so voters choose a new member of Congress in an already scheduled election.
If those election dates won't work, the governor would be able to call a stand-alone special election as long as the Legislature is willing to pay for it. In 2017, a special congressional primary was held on Aug. 17, with the general election in November.
Legislative rules also would be changed to alter the existing process for filling an unexpected U.S. Senate vacancy, shifting the responsiblity for submitting nominees to the governor from political parties to lawmakers.
Under the outline, it would be up to the Legislative Management Committee to send three names to the House and Senate, where majority votes in both houses would be needed to advance them to the governor.
The person appointed by the governor to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy would serve until an election for the remainder of the term could be held during the next regular general election cycle.
Thatcher said the Senate changes are "a pretty good balance to return a little bit to the Legislature in terms of essentially acting as advise and consent on a Senate replacement if there ever is one."
He said it's important for committee members to remember how seldom such vacancies actually occur. The vacancy left by Chaffetz was the first in Utah since Rep. Elmer Leatherwood died in office in 1929.
"While I do think it's important that we have a process in place, please bear in mind this is exceptionally rare, what we're talking about," the senator said. "This might not happen for another 50 years."
The committee also took no action on the question of whether they need to get involved in whether elected local government officials are properly reporting the money they raise and spend on their campaigns.
Last month, Thatcher made unsubstantiated allegations about unspecified city council members getting unreported campaign contributions from a lobbyist making a "disproportionately higher" amount of money from the same city.
A study he'd requested of how many local officials don't report any contributions or expenditures basically suggested that number goes up as local governments get smaller and failed to generate enthusiasm for looking at legislation.
"We don't think there is a need for additional state oversight," Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, testified. "It's the responsibility of local governments to run local elections."
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said "there's a lot of problems much more serious than what we're talking about here." Lyman said campaigning in rural areas means borrowing a truck and decorating it with toilet paper to serve as a parade float.
"That's how politics should be," he said. "They're not thinking about spending a bunch of money to get a political office. They're willing to serve and they go out and throw their name in."1 comment on this story
For rural elected officials, Lyman said it can be hard to determine what's a campaign expense, citing long drives that include business and personal stops as well as talking to voters.
"This is already the law," Thatcher said. "The question is, because it is not happening, what do we do? Do we decide we don't care because it's local government?"
He said if a candidate is spending money, voters "have a right to know where that money is coming from even if it's coming from the candidates. And I think we have a right to know where it's going. I think it is important."