In the eyes of Utahns, only one group might have more sway than the governor — and that’s leaders of the Utah Legislature.
That’s according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, which found slightly more Utahns think legislative leaders have the most influence in Utah — though the governor ranks very close behind and within the margin of error.
The poll asked what elected leader or group of leaders have the most influence in Utah. The largest group of respondents, 33%, answered legislative leaders. Almost as many, 32%, answered the governor. Only 12% said city and county leaders. Nine percent answered “other,” and 14% said they didn’t know.
The poll of 804 registered voters in Utah was conducted March 9-21 by Dan Jones & Associates. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.45 percentage points.
Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the poll’s results show most Utahns think “policy power” is fairly split between the governor and the Legislature, with just slightly more leaning toward legislative leaders.
Though the governor is unmistakably a highly identifiable, leading face at the helm of the state, Perry said the poll results show Utahns have noticed legislative leadership’s power has slowly burned brighter over the years.
Take what happened in 2018, when the Utah lawmakers, under the leadership of former President Wayne Niederhauser and House Speaker Greg Hughes, expanded their power by passing a constitutional amendment to allow the Legislature to call itself into a special session in times of emergency.
“That was a game changer for our Legislature,” Perry said.
At the time of that constitutional amendment, which was later approved by Utah voters, little did legislative leaders know that in a couple of years a pandemic would descend on the world, Utah included. But that constitutional amendment laid a crucial framework for legislative leaders to exercise the Legislature’s power on major policy decisions, especially around COVID-19.
That “shifted the balance of power” between the executive branch and the legislative branch, Perry said, “particularly on big issues in the emergency category.”
“When you combine that with the decisions that had to be made during the pandemic, the influence and the public presence of the Legislature is higher than we have seen for a very long time,” Perry said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Utah’s legislative leaders have “played a big role and a decisive role” on COVID-19 policy decisions — from shutdowns and business restrictions, to schools, mask mandates and vaccine requirements, Perry said.
“The pandemic really made those decisions more visible throughout the state,” he said.
Republican versus Democrats
Republicans own a supermajority in both the Utah House and Senate, and the state has not elected a Democratic governor since 1980.
In the poll, Republicans and Democrats differed in who they think wields the most influence.
Among respondents who identified themselves as Democrats, 42% say legislative leaders have the most influence, while 23% say it’s the governor. For Republicans, 37% say the most influence lies with the governor, while 34% say it’s legislative leaders.
Also, conservatives tend to think the governor has more influence, while liberals say it rests with legislative leaders, according to the poll.
Perry said Utah voters “look through their political lens” when considering the influence of the state’s leaders, and it makes sense that more Democrats would see legislators as having the most power because they’re looking through a “lens of decisions that they disagree with.”
“That’s what’s interesting about this,” Perry said. “Democrats over the last couple of years, particularly when it comes to COVID response, to masks, to businesses, to vaccinations, I think Democrats are looking through the lens of, ‘Well, who has made decisions I disagree with the most over the last two years?’ And they’re giving that nod to the Legislature.”
Shift of power
In the waning months of his governorship as COVID-19 took hold in Utah, former Gov. Gary Herbert faced criticisms that his “light touch” and “collaborative” leadership style — though it served him well for most of his time in office — became a weakness during the COVID-19 pandemic. His critics said he left a “leadership vacuum” that legislative leaders filled.
Herbert’s predecessor and Gov. Spencer Cox’s biggest political opponent in the 2020 GOP gubernatorial race, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., told the Deseret News in August 2020 that Utah’s executive powers have slipped over the years, pointing to the 2018 constitutional amendment as the most “extraordinary” example.
When there is an “omission” of power, it naturally “slips into the hands of others,” Huntsman said at the time. “Power is very fluid, and there are real vacuums that are created when leadership doesn’t exist, and those are filled by a power player.”
Huntsman said there has been a power “imbalance” for some time, and COVID-19 “just exacerbates the preexisting state of play.”
But legislative leaders disagreed with that perspective. They defended the governor, and argued his leadership style struck an appropriate balance of collaboration during an unprecedented time of crisis, a time when they said decisions must take into account both public health and economic health.
“If people are taking the fact that the governor likes to get feedback and input from others as a weakness, that’s ridiculous,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told the Deseret News at the time.
Legislative leaders have noted that there’s always a natural, longstanding “healthy tension” between the legislative and executive branches, and that’s just part of Utah’s governance structure. They have also argued the Legislature’s moves have not been to encroach on the governor’s power, but rather to ensure the proper balance of power during a prolonged state of emergency.
A ‘balanced’ government
In response to the poll results, Wilson said in a prepared statement Wednesday that the Legislature’s role is “critical to the success of our state as we create and balance a budget and pass policies that better the lives of Utahns.”
“Legislators work closely with our governor and local elected officials to remain responsive to the needs of our state,” the speaker said.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told the Deseret News in an interview Wednesday he was “encouraged” by the poll results, because he said they show Utahns don’t need a “civics lesson” on how Utah’s government structure is supposed to have a healthy balance between the legislative and executive branches.
He also said it seems to indicate most Utahns understand that cities and counties are political subdivisions of the state.
“What your poll shows is maybe people actually understand that balance, and in Utah we are pretty balanced,” Adams said. “I think our Founding Fathers would be pretty happy with your poll.”
He added that it makes sense that Utahns see their state representatives or senators as influential since they generally work “closer to the public.”
Adams said he doesn’t think the poll results are “reflective” of Herbert or Cox or any governor, but rather “the policies our Founding Fathers put in place.”
“I don’t care who the governor is, or the mayor, or the president, the executive branch was never anticipated to set policy,” Adams said. “And when a governor, or a president, or a mayor, starts to set policy, that becomes problematic. You can be a strong president, a strong mayor, a strong governor, but if you are and you start to set policy unilaterally, the legislative branch needs to push back on you.”
As COVID-19 set in, Herbert, “to his credit,” Adams said, “was trying, but it was very appropriate for the Legislature to step in and set policy, because that’s what our Founding Fathers (intended).”
“It’s not a reflection on any one person,” Adams added. “Again, I think in the last two years we got a real civics lesson as to what, in fact, we need to continue to do. And that is the legislative body sets the policy, sets the statute, sets the laws, and the executive branch carries those out.”
Perry said the Legislature’s growing influence has evolved slowly over time, but COVID-19 “escalated the timeline of that shift.”
“It’s more than just a question of who’s sitting in the governor’s chair over the past two cycles,” Perry said. “Although we have seen that balance shift a bit, we’ve seen a larger transformation of the influence of the legislature over the past two years.”
Like his predecessor and former boss, Cox — he served as Herbert’s lieutenant governor — at times has also received some criticism for not taking a stronger stance on issues.
He faced it over his COVID-19 response and in the redistricting debate, when the Legislature adopted its own maps instead of the ones proposed by the Independent Redistricting Commission. Cox signed all of the maps, saying he’s not a “bomb thrower” and that lawmakers are “fully within their rights” to draw Utah’s political boundaries.
But Cox, especially in recent weeks, has also shown he’s not afraid to clash with legislators.
Earlier this month, Cox vetoed a bill banning transgender girls from competing in female school sports. Soon after, the Utah Legislature voted to override him but convened in a special session, which was called by the governor, to indemnify the Utah High School Activities Association and school districts, as well as appropriate $500,000 for potential legal costs.
Pointing to that latest example, Adams said the Legislature and Cox continue to have a healthy relationship that at times does hit bumps.
“We didn’t let personalities or emotions get in the way, but we got the policy taken care of,” Adams said. “You know, some people may not agree with the policy, but it happened, and I would say in a respectful fashion.”
As a past legislator, Cox understands “that role, but his language does indicate the understanding of this shift” of power, Perry said.
During the 2021 Utah Legislature, Cox and his office spent much of the session working behind the scenes to temper two bills aimed at restricting emergency powers. Cox has also said repeatedly he knows he has to work with legislators — not against — to get things done for Utah.
More recently, when Cox issued his veto of the transgender sports ban, he acknowledged that an override was imminent and called the special session to address financial and legal issues with the bill.
“I think the governor will push back where he can,” Perry said, “but there is a lot of opportunity for the Legislature now that they did not have in the past.”
Cox’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.