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Utah lawmakers override 2 vetoes in balance of power dispute

April 19, 2018
Rep. Christine F Watkins, center, R-Price, watches a vote on the House floor with other lawmakers during a special session at the Utah State Capitol Wednesday, April 18, 2018, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers are overruling the governor on a pair of a pair of issues about the balance of power within the overwhelmingly GOP state, deepening an intra-party power struggle. Lawmakers used a special session on Wednesday to override Republican Gov. Gary Herbert's veto of two measures that he says encroach on his executive authority. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers overruled the Republican governor Wednesday on a pair of issues regarding separation of powers, deepening an intra-party tug-of-war in the overwhelmingly GOP state.

By a wide margin, the legislature voted to override vetoes issued by Gov. Gary Herbert in March and pave the way for it to more strongly assert itself in the state’s legal processes. Two-thirds majorities in both the state House and Senate, in which Republicans hold large majorities, were necessary to override the vetoes.

“It comes down to a simple thing of checks and balances,” Sen. Lyle Hillyard, a Republican sponsor of one of the bills, said from the chamber floor. “The legislature needs to have strength.”

One of the bills upheld by lawmakers forces the attorney general to release legal opinions requested by lawmakers.

The other allows lawmakers to defend state laws in court, a responsibility that has traditionally belonged to the attorney general. With a separate vote on Wednesday, lawmakers reinstated $700,000 they set aside for that purpose, enough to hire a five-person legal team.

The votes were the latest blow in what’s become a yearlong struggle over the levers of state law. The fight stems from the governor’s decision last year regarding a special election to replace Republican Jason Chaffetz in Congress.

Lawmakers at the time asked the governor to call a special session, in which they could set rules for the election, which ultimately saw Republican John Curtis replace Chaffetz. Herbert refused to do so, infuriating lawmakers who felt the governor overstepped his authority.

Legislators also threatened to sue Attorney General Sean Reyes over release of an opinion about the election’s legality. Reyes ultimately released that opinion, which upheld the governor’s ability to set the terms of a special election.

Herbert claimed the new laws amount to a power grab by the legislature and an unfair encroachment on his executive powers.

“We’re not encroaching upon the governor’s power to execute the law or to defend the law,” Rep. Merrill Nelson said, a Republican who sponsored both bills. “We’re not encroaching on the governor at all.”

Herbert’s office said it cannot file a lawsuit over the new law until legislators use it, and invited them to do so.

“We would encourage the legislature to intervene in a court case as soon as possible so that the Utah courts can quickly resolve these important constitutional issues,” said Paul Edwards, Herbert’s deputy chief of staff.

Reyes said in a statement that he had faith “in the long-term results of our system of checks and balances.”

Legislators also passed a constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters in November, would give the legislature the ability to call itself into a special session during certain “emergency” sessions, such as ahead of a special election.

Currently, lawmakers only have that power to override vetoes.

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