Legislative special session targets governor’s powers during state emergency


By Marina McNairy and Decker Westenburg

Two new bills presented in the online Special Legislative Session would require the governor to converse with the legislative branch as well as a newly created Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission before declaring a state of emergency.

HB3005 would require the governor to consult with certain legislative branch officers at least 48 hours before declaring a state of emergency. The bill would also prohibit the governor from suspending the enforcement or application of certain provisions.

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, bottom center, leads the Utah Legislature’s virtual special session in nearly empty House chambers at the Utah State Capitol Thursday, April 16, in Salt Lake City. In a historic, first-ever virtual special session, the Utah House voted to pass several bills seeking to respond to the global coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, sponsored the bill. “The governor has the ability to move more swiftly than the 75 and 29 (state representatives and senators),” Gibson said. “I think there are instances where we need to be notified more than 20 minutes before a declaration comes out.” Gibson said legislators have received notification as little as 15 minutes in advance.

“It seems unnecessary. It seems like an overreach,” said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville. Nelson said the office of governor is designed to respond to emergencies in a swift and timely manner. He worries the legislative branch is “overstepping” and it may be a “violation of that separation of powers our constitution enshrines.”

Gibson said he isn’t trying to take away the role of governor. “We are saying we are an equal yolk here,” Gibson said. “Let’s work together. Let’s see if we can figure something out together.”

The House voted 56-18 to pass HB3005.

Another bill presented in the virtual Senate meeting was SB3004. This bill would create the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission. The commission would advise and make recommendations directly to the governor regarding Utah’s response to the COVID-19 emergency.

Bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, said the commission is purely advisory and that the governor is the final decision maker. The governor also does not have to accept the commission’s recommendations as a whole. 

The governor would be required to either accept a recommendation from the committee or explain why he is not accepting it. If the governor adopts a recommendation by order, that would supersede any local order that is more restrictive than the governor’s order. 

“I did raise a concern to the sponsor about bringing underserved communities,” said Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City. “The data serves for itself that it is low income communities in color as COVID-19 positive in Utah.”

Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, said, “I think that it falls fully within the purview of their task to make sure they are looking at various communities that are impacted.” 

In response, Hemmert said if this commission failed to take into account the underserved, that would be dereliction of the effort. 

The bill passed 23-6 and moves to the House for consideration.

BYU journalism students Decker Westerberg and Marina McNairy previously covered the 2020 Utah Legislative General Session in Salt Lake City. Westerberg is covering the special session from Reno and McNairy is reporting from Los Angeles.

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