A bill to prohibit child sex offenders from becoming school board members moved one big step closer to become law Thursday but only after significant debate.
The House passed HB64 by 47-27 on Thursday. The bill would bar sex offenders who commit a "grievous sexual offense" against a child from running for the state school board and local school boards.
Sponsor Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, created the bill after a registered sex offender, Richard Wagner Jones, ran for the Granite District school board last year. Jones, who spent five years in prison and 10 years on probation after a 1990 second-degree felony conviction of sexual abuse of a child, lost to incumbent Dan Lofgren.
But Moss said hundreds of her constituents contacted her, concerned that such a person was allowed to run in the first place.
"Do we want pedophiles in a position like the school board?" Moss asked fellow lawmakers Thursday. Plus, she said, it would be difficult for such a school board member to carry out his duties, having to get prior permission to enter schools.
Attempts to reach Jones for comment Thursday were unsuccessful. But he told The Salt Lake Tribune in October that he has successfully visited his own children's schools over the years by calling their principals ahead of time to get permission.
Jones' website, www.electwagner.com, also now includes a page dedicated to arguing against HB64. On that page, it's argued that recidivism statistics show Jones and many others like him are no longer risks to children; that the bill unfairly targets only sex offenders (and not those who also physically and mentally abuse children); and that voters deserve the right to decide for themselves.
The site describes Jones as a "repentant sinner."
A number of lawmakers also argued against the bill Thursday, though, in some cases, for different reasons.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, said good legislation doesn't target just one isolated incident, and Rep. Earl Tanner, R-West Jordan, questioned the need for such a law given that Jones ultimately lost his race.
"Why isn't the judgement of the public sufficient?" Tanner asked. "Why do we need to make it a statute?"
Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, said he doesn't believe it's a good idea for sex offenders to serve on school boards, but HB64 would take the choice out of voters hands and be a misuse of the legislature's power. He also questioned why it singled out just school board races and not other such as those for sheriff or city council positions that also involve contact with children.
"This is a bill that is addressed at one individual, and I think that's bad public policy," Greene said. "I think that's an improper use of our legislative authority."
Others, however, voiced support for the measure, with several saying they did so reluctantly. Rep. Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele, said the ballot box is an appropriate place to make such decisions, but he worried that candidates' criminal histories might not come to voters' attention in smaller elections.
Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview, also pointed out that in more rural areas, sometimes candidates run for school board uncontested, meaning a candidate convicted of sexual offenses against a child could win by default.
Moss also said she doesn't believe the more than 5,000 people who voted for Jones for school board last year necessarily knew about his past. Though Jones lost, he earned more than 20 percent of the vote. She said not all voters check candidate disclosure forms or keep up with the news, meaning they could be unaware of such a criminal past when they vote.
The bill now moves to the Senate, where it will have to pass through committee and two floor votes before going to the governor's desk.