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Gov. Herbert vetoes bills, early education funding

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert waited until just before his midnight Wednesday deadline to veto three bills and budget line items in three others passed by the 2016 Legislature.

"We had a late night last night," the governor's spokesman, Jon Cox, said. "The governor was working through things and constitutionally has until the day is over. … He took almost every minute of it."

The vetoes included $3 million for the K-3 early intervention program and $1.5 million for the UPSTART online preschool program, about a third of the overall funding approved this session for both programs.

The decision to reject some of the funding may be tied to the governor's re-election bid and the upcoming state GOP convention on April 23, University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless said.

"The governor is being challenged strongly from the right from within his party," Chambless said. "He's sending a message to reassure his delegates right now that he is indeed a very conservative governor."

Fellow Republican Jonathan Johnson, the head of Overstock.com, is running against Herbert and is campaigning for delegate support to advance to a primary. Herbert has already secured a spot on a primary ballot by gathering voter signatures.

Cox said the decision was based on the effectiveness of the programs, not politics.

"The governor is on the record for being supportive of early childhood education. That has not changed," he said. "If taxpayer funds are not being used in the most effective way possible, we need to change course."

Both House and Senate members will be polled by legislative leadership to determine if they want to override those and other line-item vetoes, as well as the three bills rejected by the governor.

The Legislature has until May 9 to convene an override session.

Herbert chose to allow HB220, a bill criticized for injecting partisan politics into two key legislative committees by shifting control to the majority, become law without his signature.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, gives the Senate president and the House speaker tiebreaking powers on the Legislative Management Committee responsible for hiring staff and other administrative decisions.

Members of the minority leadership teams in the House and Senate will be limited to two of the six positions on the Legislative Audit Subcommittee, which determines which agency reviews requested by lawmakers go forward.

Both committees have had an equal number of Republicans and Democrats since being created in 1975 under a Democrat-controlled Legislature. But Christensen said it was time their makeup reflected the will of the voters.

In a letter to House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, explaining his action, Herbert said he decided to "defer to the vote of the Legislature regarding their own management."

The governor said that as the state's chief executive officer, he does "not believe it is my role to interfere in the management and organization" of the legislative branch.

Cox said there was "no serious consideration" given to vetoing the bill, and "at no point in time did the governor express that he did not like the bill. He said it was something not under the purview of the executive branch."

Chambless, who is affiliated with the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the bill was a "political torpedo" and a power play by the Legislature's Republican supermajority.

"It's not the most volatile issue that catches the public's mind, but it's still hot," Chambless said. "The governor basically acted without acting. He juggled the hot potato."

Herbert said in his veto letters he would be willing to consider putting two of the three bills he vetoed on a special session agenda if some changes were made, HB377 and HB258.

HB377 would have allowed grandparents to petition for visitation rights after a parent's rights had been terminated, while HB258 attempted to exempt some recyclable products from the definition of solid waste.

But the governor said he was erring "on the side of public participation" by vetoing SB87, which would have exempted the Utah State Board of Education from public hearing requirements during parts of the rule making process.

Several appropriations tied to bills that ended up not passing were also vetoed, along with a $275,000 appropriation for a reality TV cooking competition, the Utah ProStart Teen Chef Masters program.

Bills signed by Herbert on the final day dealt with a wide range of issues, including allowing weapons on public transportation, local historic district amendments and body cameras for law enforcement.

The governor acted on 453 bills passed during the 45-day legislative session that ended March 10.

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