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Leavitt debate won’t happen

Mansell, Stephens reject his request on special sessions

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In an unprecedented move, Gov. Mike Leavitt has asked legislative leaders to allow him to debate the entire Utah House and Senate over whether the state Constitution should be changed to allow lawmakers to call themselves into special session.

But Senate President Al Mansell and House Speaker Marty Stephens said thanks but no thanks.

Leavitt can address all lawmakers Monday night in his annual State of the State address. And he can come to individual House and Senate GOP caucuses to make his points on the proposed changes.

But he won't get what is called a committee of the whole, similar to what was convened in the great debates in the Constitutional Convention 200 years ago, in the chambers to debate lawmakers as a group, legislative bosses say. That is not appropriate, Stephens, R-Farr West, said Thursday.

"I think it is essential that the governor's views be spread upon the record for the benefit of public consideration," Leavitt wrote legislative leaders earlier this week in his request to debate the entire Legislature.

Nope, said Stephens.

"He will have the bully pulpit of the governor's office for nine months" until voters get a crack at any proposed constitutional amendment in the November general election, Stephens said. "That's enough. And he can come to caucus, if he wants."

But GOP caucuses are sometimes closed. In fact, when Leavitt comes to House and Senate caucuses to complain about budget cuts or other issues, the caucuses are usually closed to the press and public. Democratic Party caucuses are usually open.

Leavitt said he wrote his concerns to legislators "to be on record."

It takes two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to change the constitution. And Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in both bodies. The governor cannot veto a proposed constitutional amendment that goes before voters.

But changing the constitution to allow lawmakers to call themselves into special session is not a partisan issue this year. When two such bills were heard in a special interim committee several weeks ago, they got bipartisan support.

HJR13, Rep. Chad Bennion's version of the constitutional change, could be heard by the whole House Friday. Sen. Bill Hickman's version is awaiting action by the whole Senate, as well.

Until his KUED press conference Thursday, Leavitt hasn't said much about the amendments, except that he believes the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of state government is about right.

Now, however, he's coming out.

Leavitt believes the issue is one between the people and the Legislature, not the governor and the Legislature, he said at the news conference.

He called it a question of limited government and opening the door for the Legislature to be full time, rather than meet in session 45 days a year.

"There seems to be quite an appetite to ask people if the Legislature should serve full time," Leavitt said. "Frankly, I don't think people are going to support (a constitutional amendment) once they understand it. . . . It is a significant change in the way government is structured."

Leavitt, under the constitution, alone calls lawmakers into special session, and he alone sets the agenda.

For some time lawmakers have been unhappy with that. But that unhappiness went into action after Leavitt last November refused to call lawmakers into session to deal with an anticipated $202 million revenue shortfall this fiscal year.

House and Senate leaders from both parties were displeased. All predict that, in some form, a constitutional amendment letting lawmakers call themselves into session will pass this session.

"Such a change could precipitate a fundamental constitutional shift: the equivalent of a full-time Legislature," Leavitt wrote in his letter to Mansell and Stephens.

"I feel it is my duty to make my feelings known about limited government, regardless of the outcome of the discussion," Leavitt wrote.

Leavitt wants to address the House and Senate in a debate after the Olympic Games "so the Legislature's decision is not hurried and has full public attention."

Leaders say nothing has been or will be done in secret.

Bennion wants to let lawmakers call themselves into special session with a two-thirds vote. Lawmakers can set the agenda, but the governor can add items to the call. Hickman's bill allows only the speaker and Senate president to call a session, or they can have a special session with a majority vote of both the House and Senate. Two other bills are related to the issue — one would require Leavitt to place items on special session calls a day or two before lawmakers meet, another would prohibit Leavitt's cutting of the budget if revenues fell more than $25 million.

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com ; jtcook@desnews.com