SALT LAKE CITY — Days after a federal appeals court upheld Utah's controversial election law allowing candidates to gather signatures to get on the primary ballot, Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday encouraged the Utah Republican Party to drop the fight.
"We've tried and tried and tried, and again SB54 has been upheld as constitutional," the governor said at his monthly KUED news conference. "I think we see the writing on the wall."
The Utah GOP sued the state over the 2014 law known as SB54, which allows candidates to bypass Utah's traditional caucus and convention system by gathering signatures. The party has lost and appealed court rulings several times, but the battle appears far from over.
When Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson announced last year that he was dropping the lawsuit, it angered some GOP members, including Entrata CEO Dave Bateman, who has agreed to pay for the legal costs going forward. Some GOP legislators unhappy with SB54 have tried to repeal the law, which has caused deep divides and bickering within the party.
"I'm really disappointed we have this divisiveness in the Republican Party," Herbert said Thursday, calling it "unhealthy" for the future of the party and for Utah policymaking.
The governor attributed outcry over SB54 to "more of a minority group of people that are very loud and strident," and he backs the law as "a good compromise."
"This is the third time we've had it in the courts," Herbert continued. "Do we want to continue to fight amongst each other and spend money that's probably unnecessary?"
The governor also covered a range of other topics during Thursday's news conference, including talk of gun violence solutions, bills he may veto, and plans for an upcoming special session to make changes to the inland port authority bill Salt Lake City leaders have contested.
With more than 800 March for our Lives demonstrations planned around the world for this weekend sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida, Herbert said Utahns should not shy away from discussing solutions to gun violence, suggesting the state should discuss background checks, a bump stock ban, age restrictions, and other means to ensure safety in schools.
"We certainly ought to have the discussion and not be afraid of having a dialogue," Herbert said.
He added: "I'm interested in doing something that actually creates a positive result — not just a feel-good thing, (but) something that actually makes a difference. So let's have the discussion and see if we can't find some common ground."
Asked about a bill that failed in a House committee that would have allowed law enforcement to confiscate guns from people deemed violent or unstable, Herbert signaled his support for the bill, but added, "It's always the devil's in the details" on how to avoid violating the Second Amendment.
Herbert noted that Second Amendment discussions have gone on for the past several years in a row at the Utah Legislature, "so I don't think it's going to go away," and he encouraged continued discussion.
But the governor said he doesn't know if a special session would be necessary to address gun violence or school safety.
"What would you expect to happen in a special session on school safety? Just a discussion?" Herbert asked a reporter who pressed him on why the state shouldn't have a special session on gun safety.
Herbert said it remains to be seen whether the state's safety commission might propose some solutions that would be timely enough to call a special session. "Again, my crystal ball is probably as foggy as yours, but I don't know what we're going to be doing," he said.
"It's certainly on the table as an option," he added, "and if we get some recommendations that need to be acted on before the next general session … certainly we'd be open to having a special session. But we don't want to just get in a group and say, 'Well school safety, anybody got some ideas?' That's not what special sessions are for."
Herbert has seven more days to either sign, veto or let bills become law without his signature. But some bills are giving him pause.
Herbert said he's "going to take a really hard look" at bills that might cause an imbalance of the "separation of powers" between the state's legislative and executive branches.
"That certainly would be in my sights," Herbert said, though he didn't name any specific bills. He also said there may be "a few other" bills that may need to be vetoed for technical fixes.
Previously, Herbert has threatened to veto the bill lawmakers passed setting aside $700,000 a year for attorneys to represent them when they feel compelled to go to court.
Herbert said the Legislature already has attorneys. The Utah Attorney General's Office is charged with representing the state when a law faces a legal challenge.
"I'm concerned about the fact that if they intercede, the Legislature takes upon themselves the right to intercede in any kind of litigation out there involving the state, that they're crossing the line into the executive branch," the governor said. "You can imagine the confusion if you had two different attorneys in there, both claiming to represent the state."
While Herbert can veto that bill (which may be subject to a veto override), he can't stop the Legislature from seeking the ability to call itself into special session in an emergency. That decision rests with voters this fall in the form of a ballot question to amend the Utah Constitution. Under current state law, only the governor may call the Legislature into session.
The governor also said he's struggling to decide whether to sign the bill that would ban some noncompete clauses for broadcast media.
"It's one of those issues that I understand both sides very well," Herbert said, adding that the issue is "really not black and white."
He said he's been meeting with the bill's sponsor, broadcast businesses and journalists to leave "no stone unturned to understand the pros and cons of this bill."
"That's going to be a tough one for me, but I'll make a decision before the first of next week," he said.
Inland port bill
While Herbert didn't signal a special session for gun violence or school safety, he did say he expects a special session for the controversial bill creating an inland port authority in Salt Lake City.
"We've negotiated an agreement there with Salt Lake City and the mayor and their folks, along with the sponsors of the bill in the Senate and the House," Herbert said.
He expects the special session to make changes to address concerns of Salt Lake City, including land use authority, tax increments, clearing up some "fuzzy" boundaries of the port authority's jurisdiction, and giving the Salt Lake City mayor a seat on the board.
"Happy may not be the right word" to describe Salt Lake City's stance on the bill and potential changes, Herbert said, but "I think they understand the benefit of having a shared effort between the (the city) and the state and other communities."
Development in Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant was spurred by the relocation of the Utah State Prison, which brings with it about $100 million in state money for infrastructure and helps spark more development, Herbert said.
"The inland port may be the most significant economic opportunity the state's had maybe in my lifetime," the governor said, adding that Salt Lake City officials understand they need to partner with the state to make it possible.