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House approves constitutional amendment on special sessions

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Putting aside Gov. Mike Leavitt's fear that legislators could be turning themselves into a full-time Legislature, the House approved a constitutional amendment Monday that would allow lawmakers to call themselves into special session.

Legislators in both parties are upset that Leavitt — who now has the sole constitutional authority to call legislative special sessions — refused to call them into special session in November to deal with the state's $202 million revenue short fall this fiscal year.

The House, by the required two-thirds vote, approved Rep. Chad Bennion's HJR13, 67-5. If approved by the Senate this session and by voters in November's general election, legislators with a two-thirds vote could call themselves into a special session.

Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, has a separate constitutional amendment that would allow either the president of the Senate and speaker of the House, together, to call a special session, or all lawmakers by a majority vote could call a special session. Hickman's special sessions would only last up to 10 days. His bill is moving forward in the Senate, and at some point either his, or Bennion's, could be approved for a November vote, but not both.

In floor action, Bennion's original amendment was changed to require 48-hour public notice of anything to be considered in the special session and lawmakers could call themselves into session only four times for up to seven days. The governor could call lawmakers in three times a year, for up to 15 days each special session. Legislators also decided that they could not call themselves into a special session for 60 days after the general session ends, thus requiring that they finish their general session work and can't immediately call a special session to deal with things they wanted to put off in the general session.

In a Monday press conference, GOP House leaders outlined four measures, including HJR13, that deal with special sessions.

"There is no question" that the bills and constitutional amendments come "because of the $200 million revenue short fall" and Leavitt's refusal to call a special session, said House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton. "When we are that short of money, the Legislature has to be involved" in how cuts are made. But Leavitt, on his own, withheld spending several times through orders to his department heads.

While praising his action in trying to make cuts, GOP legislative leaders say all lawmakers need a say in how that happens.

Friday, GOP leaders met with Leavitt to discuss Olympic responsibilities and the constitutional issue came up again. Last week, Leavitt formally asked to address the House and Senate in what is called a committee of the whole, where he would speak on the chamber floors and his remarks become part of the official legislative record.

"He wants his concerned addressed, on the record," said Natalie Gochnour, the governor's spokeswoman.

But House Speaker Marty Stephens and Senate President Al Mansell said no. Leavitt is invited to GOP caucuses. And Monday Gochnour said perhaps he would speak to a joint House and Senate Republican caucus after the Olympic Games in late February.

If that caucus were open to the press and public, "we would consider that an on-the-record appearance," she said.

The special session package GOP leaders want include HJR13 (or Hickman's bill); HB109 by Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, which would prohibit Leavitt from cutting budgets by more than $25 million in a revenue-downturn year; HJR11 by Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, which would require any bill considered in a special session to be publicly announced 48 hours before the session begins; and HJR19, also by Bennion, a joint rule that would require any special session bill to have a public committee hearing.

Urquhart said 48 hours' notice is needed because too often now bills in special sessions are introduced the day of the session with little or no public notice.

"This would stop a special session bill from being crafted in subtle ways in the dark by special interests" and be passed without the public — and maybe even legislators — knowing the full meaning, Urquhart said.

Sometimes such bills written "behind closed doors" are rubber-stamped by lawmakers called into a one-day special session with a number of items that don't have public hearings. "This will allow legislators to root out hidden agendas," he added.

His bill has an emergency clause that would allow an item to be added to a special session agenda without the 48-hour notice with two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.

Holdaway said he was "confused" this past summer when Leavitt announced the first rounds of state spending "holdbacks."

"I thought the Legislature held the purse strings" on the state budget, he said. "But apparently we don't" when the governor can trim any amount of spending that had been approved previously by the Legislature.

In his letter to GOP leaders, Leavitt said a public debate is needed over the constitutional changes because allowing lawmakers to call themselves into session is a major shift in the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches of state government.

The governor said the change could lead to a full-time Legislature, in session as often as it is out of session.

But that won't happen, said Bennion and Garn. For example, in summer months part-time lawmakers involved in agriculture would oppose any lengthy time at the Capitol, away from the farms and animals, said Bennion.

E-MAIL: bbjr@desnews.com