5 amendments to state constitution on ballot

By Deseret News Nov 3, 2008, 12:26am MST

Arthur Raymond

Adding to a lengthy list of decisions on political representation, judicial and school board positions and bonding issues, Utah voters will be asked on Tuesday to weigh in on a full house of changes to the state’s governing document.

Five proposed amendments to the Utah Constitution, identified with letters A through E, will make changes to state funding/investment mechanisms, clarify succession rules of the state’s executive office, change the starting date of the state legislative session and alter when statewide redistricting is conducted.

Changes to the state constitution are born in the Legislature, and this year’s batch is the product of both the 2007 and 2008 sessions. In the event of passage, the modifications take effect on Jan. 1, 2009.

• Amendment A — Executive Officer Succession Provisions:

Last addressed in 1980, this proposal clarifies language outlining who succeeds the governor in the event of his/her leaving or failing to take office.

Though rarely used, problems with the reading of this part of the constitution created havoc in 2003 when then Lt. Gov. Olene Walker took over for Gov. Mike Leavitt following his confirmation as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The succession language suggested that Walker was only an “acting” governor — an issue addressed in an opinion issued by Attorney General Mark Shurtleff that stated the successor “is” the governor and not just a temporary replacement. This amendment essentially codifies that interpretation.

In the event the governor dies, is impeached, moves out of state, becomes disabled or, in the case of a governor-elect, fails to take office, the succession ladder goes lieutenant governor, president of the Senate, speaker of House. A new twist also mandates Senate ratification of the new governor’s appointment of a lieutenant governor.

• Amendment B — Changes to Permanent State Trust Fund:

In 2001, a few years after the $200 billion-plus landmark settlement by Utah and 45 other states with tobacco companies, a state constitutional amendment established a protected trust fund to squirrel away a portion of that money over the course of its 25-year payout schedule. Provisions of the amendment restrict contributions to the fund to the tobacco payouts and gifts from individuals.

This proposal modifies those restrictions to allow contributions from revenues collected in the form of severance taxes levied on companies that extract oil, gas and mineral resources. Crafted by Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, in 2007, the change aims to create a rainy-day fund to prepare for a future that could see a decline in these tax revenues as resources are depleted. The fund would exist as a separate account from the tobacco trust, but subject to the same protection of its principal, access to which requires gubernatorial consent as well as a three-fourths vote of both houses of the Legislature. The initial investment plan requires depositing all severance-tax revenues from oil and gas in excess of $71 million and minerals in excess of $27.6 million.

• Amendment C — Change of Start Date for Legislature:

Controversy has swirled around the traditional opening day of the state legislative session, designated as the third Monday in January, which lands it on the federal holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This proposal pushes that date back a week to the fourth Monday of the month, and it also excludes the Presidents’ Day holiday from the official count of the 45-day session.

An additional benefit of the change is an extra week to consider, and make budget adjustments based on, final state tax-revenue figures that typically are available in mid-February.

• Amendment D — Changes to Required Redistricting Schedule:

Currently, the Legislature is required to perform congressional, legislative and other redistricting duties in the session immediately following a new federal census. Since census data is not made available until after the Utah legislative session is completed, in the year after the survey is conducted, the state has been, essentially, in constitutional violation due to the non-conducive schedules. A change in language stipulates that the Legislature will redistrict in the next session following receipt of that federal census data.

• Amendment E — Changes to Investment Statute for Schools Funds:

An 1896 constitutional edict prevents state and local governments from investing in stocks or bonds of privately owned companies. One amendment to the rule was passed in 2005 that opened opportunities for financial involvement with private companies that sought intellectual property rights for innovations coming out of state schools. This new change would allow a portion of the money from the state school fund and revenues derived from federal lands granted to Utah when it gained statehood to be invested in stock and/or bond markets.