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Is Utah Constitutional Amendment A a power grab or needed legislative flexibility?

Republican Senate President Stuart Adams presides on the floor of the Utah Senate chamber, Jan. 18, 2022
Ivana Martinez
Republican Senate President Stuart Adams presides on the floor of the Utah Senate chamber, Jan. 18, 2022

Below the high-profile races for House and Senate, and the state Legislature, Utahns will find an amendment to the Utah Constitution on their ballot — Constitutional Amendment A.

The amendment was proposed by the Legislature back in 2021. If passed, it would increase the amount of money the Legislature can spend or cut during an emergency special session from 1% to 5% of the state’s total budget. That money would not include any federal emergency funds.

Voters gave lawmakers the power to convene special sessions without the governor in 2018.

Who’s into it?

The Utah Taxpayers Association supports the change, even though it would empower the Legislature to spend more.

“There are many that are uncomfortable with anything that has the wording ‘allowing the legislature to further appropriate money,’” said association president Rusty Cannon. “We would understand that, but we think in most instances this could be used to cut the budget and not increase the budget.”

In 2021, legislative sponsors said that the change was spurred by the number of special sessions that became necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What this resolution does is it simply says we would like to, first of all, raise the limit from 1% to 5% so that we give ourselves a little more flexibility,” said Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane. “Hopefully we don't have to call ourselves into special session as often and we can truly deal with an emergency.”

The resolution to put the amendment in front of voters passed near-unanimously in both the House and Senate. Constitutional amendments must be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature before they are voted on by the public.

The spending amount of the new cap would depend on two factors: the date when the special session is called and the total of the state budget. For example, if a session is called before June 30, 2023, the Legislature would use the previous fiscal year’s budget of $28 billion. Meaning that, if the amendment passes, they would have the power to spend or cut about $1.4 billion of that money in an emergency.

Who’s not into it?

Critics argue the amendment would give the Legislature more power than is necessary under the current constitution and would undermine the state’s separation of power between branches of government. That includes the progressive policy organization Alliance for a Better Utah.

“We believe that the governor should have a say in this or a hand in this and they should have to work together when talking about huge amounts of money during an emergency,” said the organization's Executive Director Chase Thomas. “We think it’s an unnecessary expansion of legislative power at the expense of constitutional checks and balances.”

Cannon sees things differently.

“You’ll always see a natural tension between the executive branch and the legislative branch,” he said. “We really don’t see it as tilting the scales to the Legislature. We think it’s equalizing the scales between the Legislature and the governor in an emergency.”

Despite the Utah Taxpayers Association’s backing, Cannon said he feels the amendment might ultimately fail to gain enough support from Utah voters, partly because no arguments for or against it were included in the official state voter guide.

“We honestly feel like it likely won’t pass because there’s essentially no ‘yes’ argument submitted, no ‘no’ argument submitted,” he said. “When most voters read it, the way that it’s worded does make it sound like you’re allowing the legislature to spend more money, which could be in certain cases.”

If the amendment does pass, it would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023.

Mail-in ballots have been sent out and must be postmarked by Nov. 7. Utahns can also drop off their ballot at a secure box location, vote in person at an early polling location or on Election Day, which is Nov. 8.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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