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Temporary Solution for Controversial State School Board Elections Clears Hurdle

The Utah Senate gave initial approval today to a stopgap measure that would make Utah’s State School Board election process legal. A judge ruled in 2014 that the process was unconstitutional.

Republican Senator Ann Millner’s bill SB 78 narrowly addresses the free speech issues U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups identified with the existing process. Since that ruling, the state dropped the selection process and has simply allowed any interested candidate to go on the election ballot. Millner says that’s a big problem.

“In Davis District there were 17 candidates who filed,” Millner says. “You could have 17 people on the general election and have someone that’s selected with, you know 12, 15 percent of the vote.”

In the past Utah’s governor appointed a committee that recruited and selected three candidates. The governor then narrowed that list of candidates to two. A handful of rejected candidates, some of them incumbents, brought a lawsuit against the state. They expressed concern that they were being discriminated against based on the political views of the selection committee. 

Utah lawmakers have tried to change the process for years, but they haven’t agreed on whether the elections should be partisan or nonpartisan. Millner’s bill asks the governor to appoint the committee in March and directs the committee to select candidates based on more objective criteria, rather than their political philosophies.

Democratic Senator Jim Dabakis says the body needs to agree on a long-term resolution and not a temporary stopgap.  He voted against the bill.

“I think they pay us the big bucks to do the big things and not punt,” Dabakis says. “We punted last year. And with this bill, we’re punting again.”

The intent of the bill is to get through the next election cycle. It would sunset in 2017. The Senate will consider and vote on the measure one more time before sending it to the House.

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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