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In our opinion: Utah special legislative session should set up partnerships, not a showdown

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, leads the Utah Legislature’s virtual special session from the House chambers at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 16, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

When you’re a state lawmaker, nothing can be as tenuous as the official revenue projections used to draw the budget. Utah, by law, has to make ends meet. That can be easy in good times; much less so in bad.

This year’s projections started out good, and now, without a shadow of doubt, they have turned.

Hence, the biggest reason lawmakers are convening a special session Thursday should be to adjust the state budget. As a practical matter, Washington’s decision to move the tax deadline to July creates problems when it comes to collecting state taxes. Lawmakers also will increase the state’s bonding capacity and, most likely, vote to accept federal stimulus money.

In addition, they likely will make practical changes to the state’s unemployment insurance, reducing the waiting time for benefits, and also generously expanding workers compensation payments to those first responders who have tested positive for COVID-19.

These and other changes, including help for businesses hurt by the pandemic and the waiving of year-end testing for schools, are necessary adjustments to a pandemic that had barely begun when the Legislature’s regular annual session came to an end, but that has since exacted a devastating toll on the economy. Lawmakers need to be nimble in responding to a crisis that will affect pocketbooks statewide.

But lawmakers aren’t planning to stop there. The session’s agenda contains 20 items. Some of them aim to interject the Legislature into decisions about when to ease restrictions on the economy, and perhaps how to impose similar restrictions in a future pandemic.

One bill would require the governor to consult with legislative leaders in the future before issuing executive orders concerning a response to a pandemic. It also would give lawmakers the power to end any such executive order through a joint resolution. This would be an inadvisable intrusion on a system that has worked remarkably well in Utah.

Gov. Gary Herbert has issued a general “stay safe, stay home” directive that provides counties, and county health departments, plenty of leeway in dealing with their individual unique circumstances. Salt Lake County, for instance, has issued a stronger stay-home directive. Utah County has not.

We understand that some lawmakers are frustrated with how the virus has affected the economy and are anxious for all Utahns to get back to work. We hope it would be hard to find a clear-thinking person who wasn’t anxious for that to happen.

But there can be little doubt that the strategies of county leaders, working closely with the governor, have succeeded. Utah has among the lowest death rates due to COVID-19 in the nation. Now is not the time to confuse processes or make it more difficult for state leaders to respond.

Senate President Stuart Adams said lawmakers may set up a commission, consisting of health professionals, business leaders and members of the Legislature, to advise the governor on how and when to reopen the economy. This makes much more sense than to set up a showdown between two branches of government at a time when cooperation is vital.

This legislative session will be historic because it will be the first ever conducted entirely online, with lawmakers scattered throughout the state. So long as the technology holds out and the public has easy access, this could be an interesting experiment in democracy — one made necessary by circumstances we hope never are repeated.