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Opinion: Who is in charge, the governor or Legislature?

Where is the balance of power in Utah’s government? Public opinion is divided — but we have thoughts on who is right

SHARE Opinion: Who is in charge, the governor or Legislature?
Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his State of the State address in the Utah House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks in the Utah House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. The governor and the Legislature have a history of power balancing.

Leah Hogsten

Political events of the last several months have emphasized the different approaches to public policy taken by Gov. Spencer Cox and most GOP lawmakers, even though they affiliate with the same political party. We explore how this impacts public perception about who holds the most clout in state government.

A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll revealed 33% of Utahns believe legislative leaders have the most influence in the state, and 32% believe the governor does. Is this perception by citizens a reality?

Pignanelli: “The same rule that teaches the propriety of a partition between the various branches of power, teaches us this partition ought to be so contrived as to render the one independent of the other.” — Alexander Hamilton

During my service in the Legislature, I witnessed the shift of a gubernatorial centric of power in state government towards a legislative axis. A classic example is that for a century, the Legislature utilized the governor’s budget for deliberations. Then they initiated the tradition of constructing their own budgetary document with occasional reference to the chief executive. This included increased scrutiny and accountability of appointed officials. For over two decades this metamorphosis continued. Many political observers believe these developments are unnatural and not beneficial.

I disagree.

Granted, my legislative background and lobbyist experience does not breed objectivity. But the facts demonstrate that many of the recognitions and awards Utah receives for quality management, technological advancement and transparency are substantially due to legislative initiatives.

Furthermore, Utahns noticed the legislature was the driving force for very high-profile measures including tax reform, modifying citizens initiatives, major capital improvements, responses to pandemic, readjustments to local control, etc. These actions were controversial, and sometimes fostered strong organic opposition. Yet, they planted a deep impression that part-time lawmakers were the energy behind many state policies. (This explains the passage of the recent constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to call itself into special session.)

A quarter century of transformation is evidence that citizens’ perception of a strong influence of Legislature is warranted. Thankfully, I paid attention when it began.

Webb: I believe Utah enjoys a very healthy balance of power in state government. There will always be ebbs and flows, pushing and pulling and natural tension, but I think the balance in clout, approval ratings and popularity is about where it should be.

It’s important to remember that on 90% or more of the issues, Cox and the Republican Legislature are in agreement. Cox is a little more moderate on social issues than a majority of Republican legislators, but the gap is not enormous. 

Both executive and legislative branches are led by mainstream, pragmatic politicians representative of most Utahns. If the Legislature was led and dominated by far-right extremists, we’d see many more battles.

It’s also worth noting that among Republicans, the governor is viewed as wielding more influence than lawmakers. Democrats say legislative leaders have more influence, but in their eyes that’s a negative thing because they often disagree with legislative decisions.   

The Legislature has strong leadership, and they’re not going to simply follow the governor’s lead. That’s a good thing. But the governor is highly visible and popular, and he has the entire executive branch of state government to do his bidding.

This balance is healthy for society and pays off in good governance and a robust economy. It’s what the founders intended in creating three separate branches of government that would check each other and prevent any individual or branch of government from becoming too powerful. 

If the governor’s impact on the state is less than, or at most equal to, part-time lawmakers, should or can he do anything to adjust the perception or the reality?

Pignanelli: Barring any weird emergencies, the current structure will remain. But the governor can reassert primacy in some areas through aggressive measures best suited to executive action including state government responses to drought, growth, air quality and higher education reform, etc. Unlike the Legislature, he has a singular bully pulpit to lead, persuade and cajole other officials, the media and citizens. Like a muscle, if regularly used, strength and coordination can result.

Webb: When I worked for Gov. Mike Leavitt (yes, it was 100 years ago, or so) I witnessed an immense amount of work with the Legislature behind the scenes, influencing and molding legislative action, without any public visibility or credit. It’s remarkable how the threat of a veto can kill a lot of bad legislation without it ever seeing the light of day. Or how legislation can be improved with the help of a cabinet member or executive branch expert.

I assume a lot of similar things happen today.

Is this leadership dynamic reflected in events occurring at party conventions and elections?

Pignanelli: While subtle, recognition of legislative influence on substantive state government matters is acknowledged, and often expected, by convention delegates and voters in most elections. This will continue to solidify the current relationship.

Webb: State and county convention delegates do pay close attention to legislative races. For most general election voters, however, the governor’s race is a much more consequential vote.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Email: frankp@xmission.com.