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Voters will decide whether to boost Utah lawmakers spending power

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Merrilee Gasser

(The Center Square) - Utah voters will decide on election day whether to increase the amount of money the state Legislature can spend during an emergency special session.

Constitutional Amendment A would boost the amount of money legislators could spend or cut during a special session convened by the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate from 1 percent of the previous year’s budget to 5 percent.

When the governor calls the Legislature into special session, there is no budgetary limit.

Bill sponsors Rep. Bradley Last, R-Hurricane, and Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, have said the pandemic showed a need for increased flexibility.

Voters approved an amendment in 2018 that allowed the state Legislature to call itself into emergency special session if two-thirds of all members agree that there is a “persistent fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster, or emergency in the affairs of the state,” according to the proposal.

“As fate would have it, last year we were able to exercise that option a couple of different times so that we could deal with the COVID pandemic and the resulting impacts on the state budget,” Last said during a House floor debate discussing the amendment. “What we learned through that process was that we didn’t give ourselves very much flexibility.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Utah lawmakers ended up calling themselves into emergency special session multiple times.

“In the third special session, which the president and the speaker called, we spent $109 million dollars. In the fourth special session, we needed to do a lot of work because by then we had the federal money that came in and we had no ability to deal with that," Last said. "Fortunately, the governor went along with us and we appropriated $2.1 billion dollars. In the fifth special session, that’s when we did a lot of the cuts, but we didn’t give ourselves the ability to cut the budget or remove appropriations other than the 1 percent limitation so that created some challenges for us."

The year before the pandemic, lawmakers spent around $20 billion, which allowed them to spend or cut up to $200 million during special session, Last said. Had the limit been at 5 percent instead of 1 percent at the time, they could have spent up to $1 billion.

Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, has raised concerns about increasing the spending limit as high as 5 percent.

“That is a pretty substantial number,” Robertson said during the same house floor debate.

The way around the spending limitation is for the governor to call a special session. In April 2020, then-governor Gary Herbert called Utah lawmakers into a special session to consider how to spend $2.1 billion in federal funds.

If Constitutional Amendment A is approved by voters, it goes into effect in January 2023.