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Lawmakers failed to strike a deal on a new state school board election system Thursday, with House members rejecting a compromise bill that heavily favored the Senate's wishes.
The compromise would have created partisan state school board elections in 2016 while asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment that same year to have future board members appointed by the governor.
If the constitutional amendment failed, lawmakers would be required to revisit the issue in 2017 and create a new system.
The Utah House had already rejected both partisan elections and appointed board members, and instead put its support behind a nonpartisan bill that would require candidates to gather signatures to qualify for the ballot.
But the Senate refused to debate that bill, instead gutting it and replacing the language with its own partisan plan.
Late Thursday night, several House members expressed frustration with the Senate's actions and the body voted to stand its ground on nonpartisan elections.
"When we sent our bill to them, they never took a vote on it," Rep. Jon Cox, R-Ephraim, said. "They just gave us back their bill."
Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, said most of his constituents preferred nonpartisan elections for the state school board and none that he had talked to supported a governor appointment.
He said he was tired of being "bullied" by the Senate when the two chambers disagree.
"We've conceded on a lot of our bills and this is one that I am not, on this point, willing to change," he said.
The failure of the two bodies to reach a consensus creates uncertainty for school board elections. The state's current process was effectively stuck down in September by a U.S. District Court Judge who, rather than rule on a new election system, suspended the case to allow the Legislature to take action.
By failing to create a new method, Mapleton Republican Rep. Francis Gibson said, it is possible the state will face further lawsuits or that the judicial branch will be pressed to establish new policy.
"Looks like we'll let the judge decide," Gibson said after the House vote.
Before the vote, House members expressed disappointment that negotiations had resulted in few concessions by the Senate. The compromise bill included increased compensation for board members, an aspect of the House plan, but was largely based on bills the Senate favored.
"What did the House get out of this?" asked Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo. "Nothing that was in our bill is on here."
The next state school board election will be held in 2016, occurring after next year's Legislative session. And several lawmakers expressed interest in debating the issue during a special session this year.
On Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert said he preferred creating an appointed board, similar to the Board of Regents that oversees Utah's colleges and universities.
He said it would remove the politics and campaign stress that dissuade many qualified candidates from seeking a position on the board and would require the public to approve transitioning to that process.
"That's probably not a bad option," he said. "Let the people speak and if they pick the governor's option or if they pick partisan elections, the people have spoken."
In a prepared statement, Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Joel Briscoe said it would be wrong to place the question of school board elections before voters without giving them a chance to select nonpartisan elections, which polls show is the preferred option.
"We will have opportunities to address this in the future," Briscoe said. "We do not have to make a decision we cannot support today due to an artificial deadline. The last days of the session may move quickly, but it is no excuse to make bad policy decisions."