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Utah lawmakers could call themselves into special session over tax reform, but won't have to

By Lisa Riley Roche, KSL | Posted - Mar. 19, 2019 at 8:37 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — With all the talk at the end of the 2019 Legislature of a special session this summer to finish work on tax reform, little has been said about the new power lawmakers have to call themselves back into session.

"It does give independence we didn't have before," Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said of the amendment to the Utah Constitution approved by voters last November.

But this time, it will be Gov. Gary Herbert who calls lawmakers back into special session to pick up where they left off on coming up with a solution to lagging sales tax revenues.

The governor stood with the Senate president and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, when a late-surfacing House bill extending sales taxes to a wide variety of services, including haircuts and legal advice, was scrapped.

Herbert has made it clear he wants to maintain momentum on tax reform, telling the Deseret News he's confident "we'll have a special session sometime this summer and get this thing completed."

His office confirmed it will be the governor who calls a special session once there's consensus on what needs to happen with taxes, and that the Legislature will not have to exercise their new authority.

Before Constitutional Amendment C was passed, only the governor could call lawmakers into a special session of the Legislature outside of the annual 45-day general session. The governor also controlled special session agendas.

Legislative leaders decided they, too, needed that authority after the governor choose to set up the election process to replace former Rep. Jason Chaffetz in Congress in 2017 rather than call lawmakers into special session to handle it.

Voters set aside concerns raised by the governor and others that changing the constitution to allow lawmakers to determine if they need to convene between general sessions could lead to a full-time Legislature.

Now, the Senate president and House speaker can convene a special session of up to 10 days at least 30 days after the end of a regular general session because of "a persistent fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster, or emergency" in state affairs.

"This is a significant change in the way the Legislature operates," said Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "We will see, one of these days, just what kind of power that is."

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Perry said although the governor is "highly likely" to call the special session on tax reform, the reality is that if for some reason he didn't want to, lawmakers could do it themselves.

"I think the Legislature is not going to take that lightly," Perry, who served as chief of staff to Herbert, said. "But I think it gives them a lot more leverage in their negotiations."

Adams said he believes legislators' ability to bring themselves back into a special session "did give us confidence," knowing they had the ability to resolve any potential conflict with the governor.

"I do believe it played a role," the Senate president said. "It surely wasn't something we talked about directly. It wasn't part of the decision-making process. But it's hard to imagine it wasn't in the back of our minds."

BYU political science professor Adam Brown, who closely tracks the Legislature, said he wondered if lawmakers had calling themselves into a special session in mind when they talked about "the sales tax situation in crisis terms."

But Brown said it wouldn't have looked good for the new constitutional power to be invoked in this situation.

"It would be a little concerning if the first use of this new provision would be for the Legislature to call themselves into special session for something that was on the agenda of the regular session, but they just didn't get it done," he said.

Especially for what he called "an entirely foreseeable crisis, years in the making," as consumer spending shifted from goods to services, shrinking the state sales base key to funding all of government outside of education.

That would "raise some eyebrows about what the spirit of that new amendment is," Brown said.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the amendment may be misunderstood.

It "evens the playing field a little bit in terms of the leverage that exists between the legislative and executive branches," King said. "It makes it easier for legislative leaders to say, 'This isn't going to be our only shot.'"

He said, though, "a lot of people thought it gave too much power to the Legislature to call themselves into a session on a whim," not appreciating that most lawmakers aren't all that interested in coming back between regular sessions.

"I enjoy what I do at the Legislature, but I don't want to spend more time up there than I absolutely have to," King said. "I'm not really thrilled with the idea that it could increase the likelihood that we have the Legislature being in special session."

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