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Special Election Spat Escalates Between Lawmakers, Governor

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Julia Ritchey, KUER
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Utah state lawmakers are ramping up their fight with Gov. Gary Herbert over the special election to fill Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s seat. 

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes called a rare joint caucus meeting for both Democratic and Republican members of the House on Tuesday at the state Capitol to discuss "separation of powers." 

At issue is whether the governor overstepped his legal authority when he called for a special election on Nov. 7 to fill the soon-to-be vacant 3rd Congressional District seat.

“We do not want the public that we serve to think that this is petty bickering between political parties or the legislature vs. the governor or one member of the legislature vs. governor,” said Hughes. 

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Credit Julia Ritchey, KUER
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Lawmakers from both parties chat before a joint caucus meeting on separation of powers on June 20, 2017. The Utah Legislature says the governor overstepped his authority in blocking the attorney general's office from issuing a legal opinion on the 3rd congressional district's special election.

Hughes said the decision of the governor and lieutenant governor to outline the process for the special election — without first consulting lawmakers — had left them vulnerable to legal challenges.  

He also took issue with the governor blocking the Utah attorney general's office from issuing its own legal opinion on the validity of the special election. Hughes said state law requires the attorney general to provide legal opinions to all government agencies, including the legislature — and had done so for over a century until last month.

“This is not grandstanding,” said Hughes. “...What the attorney general described as its role has gone unchanged since 1898.”

Democratic Minority Leader Brian King took it step further, questioning the professionalism of the governor’s office in how it handled the matter. 

“The governor took the low road here when he or his staff contacted the [attorney general] and said, ‘If you release that opinion, we’ll file a bar complaint,’ because it’s a personal threat,” he said.

But Paul Edwards, Gov. Herbert's deputy chief of staff, strongly denied King's characterization. 

"There's no validity to the charge that there was some sort of intimidation or threat made about the legal ethics of the attorney general's office, or attorneys therein," said Edwards.

Edwards said the 3rd district race was going smoothly so far and said any legal challenge will be dealt with as it arises — a point echoed by others in the governor's office. 

“We feel confident with our position; we feel like we’re on solid legal footing, and we will be ready to address those in court if needed,” said Mark Thomas, the state's director of elections. 

Lawmakers acknowledged their hands may be tied at this point, but Hughes promised to bring the issue of congressional vacancies back during the next legislative session.

"I'm not looking to interrupt [the election]... but what I'm afraid is it may interrupted whether this body did anything or not, " he said. "I believe that the way this has moved forward, we may be called to act or make sense of this, and we need to be prepared for that." 

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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