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After pandemic concerns, Utah lawmakers unveil bill limiting emergency executive powers

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The Utah Senate has unveiled a bill to limit emergency executive powers during long-term emergencies, beefing up the role of the Legislature and placing a cap on what the governor and health department officials can do unilaterally. (Photo: KUTV){ }

The Utah Senate has unveiled a bill to limit emergency executive powers during long-term emergencies, beefing up the role of the legislature and placing a cap on what the governor and health department officials can do unilaterally.

Senate Bill 195, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers (R-Cedar City), seems to be the power-capping bill most likely to make its way through the legislative process during the final two and a half weeks of the session. According to a news release, the measure’s concepts have the support of the House, Senate, and governor’s office.

Jennifer Napier-Pierce, a spokeswoman for Gov. Spencer Cox, did not immediately have a comment about the bill Tuesday morning.

The bill is lengthy but seeks generally to define what executive branch leaders can do during a long-term emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It also defines the role of the legislature in decision-making. Former Gov. Gary Herbert, then-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and other executive branch officials regularly came under fire from groups and some elected leaders for the state’s executive orders to deal with the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been new territory for all of us, and over the last 11 months, we realized the need for adjustments,” said Vickers, who is the Senate majority leader.

Utahns voiced concerns and lawmakers looked for ways to improve the process to ensure democracy is upheld, even in times of crisis.

The bill would allow the legislature to terminate certain orders — such as quarantines, closures, or limits on public gathering — by state and local health departments or city and county executives. County governing bodies would have the same power in relation to their local health departments, according to the bill. The measure would require the Utah Department of Health to notify legislative leaders in addition to the governor before issuing any restrictive orders.

The bill also outlines a process for when emergency orders expire and how they can be extended. It gives power to the governor and other local executives to unilaterally extend emergency orders in certain serious circumstances, but it requires informing the Legislature ahead of time and gives the legislative branch certain options for reviewing those decisions.

If an emergency lasts longer than 30 days, the legislature could nullify any orders of the governor or other executive branch leaders, according to the bill.

“The pandemic showed that modifications were needed in order to adequately face our next extended emergency,” said Sen. Luz Escamilla (D-Salt Lake City).

During a state of emergency, decisiveness is critical, and suspending some rules and laws may be needed. However, when an emergency extends past a specific time frame, it can no longer be classified as an emergency but instead should be considered a prolonged circumstance.

Senate Bill 195 also forbids restrictions placed on religious gatherings that are more burdensome than restrictions on other public gatherings. It adjusts and clarifies the fines that may be levied against businesses or individuals for violating emergency health orders.

In a news release, the Senate noted that the bill’s concepts — which “are not a condemnation of any agency, individual or action” — will be refined as it moves through the process.

“This is only intended to deal with a long term, ongoing emergency declaration,” Vickers told reporters Tuesday afternoon, adding that other states have looked at this issue recently. “We’ve worked really hard to create a nice balance, and now it starts through that legislative process.”

The legislative session runs through March 5.

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