|by Howard Stephenson|
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that no man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.
The truth of that statement is reason enough to oppose both versions of a constitutional amendment being proposed at the current Utah Legislature.
Both HJR 13 (Bennion) and SJR 5 (Hickman) would allow the legislature to call itself into special session. One would require a two-thirds majority of each house while the other would allow a simple majority of each house to call a special session, or a joint call by the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House.
The Utah Constitution currently allows only the Governor to call the legislature into special session and even then, only the Governor can set the issues which may be considered in the special session. This check and balance ensures that the power of enacting new legislation is strictly controlled.
Legislators love to legislate. But the problem is that new laws tend to erode the liberties of the people. New laws usually expand government, impose new taxes, new regulations, new licenses, and new restrictions while leaving the people with less money and fewer liberties. It is rare that legislation repeals laws or limits government or restores liberties.
That’s why the rules which govern each General Session are actually designed to prevent legislation from being enacted. Each proposal must first make it past the rules committee and then survive a legislative committee hearing in the originating house where opponents of the legislation are allowed to make their cases. The public has an opportunity to be heard. The bill then goes to the floor for debate and a vote and — in the Senate — a second floor vote on different day. The bill then goes to the opposite house where it undergoes the same scrutiny. The Governor then gets his opportunity to veto the measure.
Ultimately a bill has to survive the 38-15-1 rule to become law: Thirty-eight favorable votes in the 75-member House of Representatives, 15 affirmative votes in the 29-member Senate and the approval of the Governor. That’s pretty good protection against bad laws.
However, special sessions don’t provide these protections because the bills aren’t required to suffer the perils of the committee process. There aren’t as many opportunities to kill bad legislation in special sessions as there are in a general session. In a special session bills are usually passed in both houses on the same day, without the public input provided through committee hearings.
A special session is an accident waiting to happen.
Removing the limit to the legislature’s ability to call itself into session is like removing the brakes from a truck before it heads down Parley’s Canyon.
Legislators can consider any legislation they want during the annual 45-day regular session. This should provide sufficient opportunities for legislating, unless the legislative branch can convince the executive branch of the need for a special session. The only justification I can think of for the legislature to bypass the Governor is if there is an emergency in which legislators could only consider cutting taxes and spending.
But that’s not what’s being proposed.
A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds favorable vote in each house to place the question on the November ballot. Hopefully, if legislators approve this concept in its present form, the voters will have the good sense to reject it.