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Utah is losing a veteran state senator known for antics that annoyed his Republican Party's right-wing base while pushing through funding reforms for higher education and a landmark anti-discrimination bill that protects gays and lesbians.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, announced in a letter to the editor in the online St. George News that he will not seek re-election.

He served eight years in the House and will complete his eighth year in the Senate this year.

Urquhart often had an unconventional approach to the Legislature, once wearing a monkey tail on the Senate floor during a debate about curbing the teaching of evolution in public schools. He also liked to get the attention of his colleagues by throwing M&Ms at the back of their heads. And he liked to turn the volume of other legislators' phone ringers on high, then call their desk to disrupt often tedious debates.

But when it came to doing his job, he was all business.

As co-chair of the Joint Higher Education Appropriations Committee, Urquhart sponsored legislation to change the way institutions of higher learning are funded.

Instead of the traditional growth-based funding — throwing dollars at colleges and universities to cover their student-body growth — the formula was changed to performance based funding in which institutions with the best student outcomes, like graduation rates and academic advancement of minority students would be rewarded with more resources.

"It doesn't do any good to keep funding growth if only 20 percent of the students graduate," Urquhart said in a recent interview.

He also guided through more stringent math requirements in public schools to better prepare students for college.

Urquhart received accolades for those achievements, but he wasn't without controversy, often daring to go where Utah conservatives rarely were willing to tread.

Urquhart worked tirelessly to pass an anti-discrimination bill that protected gays and lesbians from housing and employment discrimination, a cause not too popular in his conservative Washington County Senate district. But while he attracted some scorn for that stand from a number of constituents, he believes he still could have won re-election because he stood with their values on many other issues. He also helped pass a companion bill designed to respect religious liberties while protecting the rights of the LGBT community.

Urquhart was less successful in another controversial endeavor that offended the sensibilities of the more righteous-minded of the GOP base.

He tried to pass through a clarification in the sex education laws to make it clear to public school teachers they could discuss contraception and other birth control measures in class. His motivation was the increases in sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies in Utah.

But he was met head on by the Utah Eagle Forum and other moral crusaders and the bill went nowhere.

"I couldn't even get a discussion going in committee," he said.

Urquhart likes to point out with a smile that he likely will be best remembered as the only legislator in Utah history who sponsored a bill that later was repealed by a vote of the people.

When he was in he House, Urquhart sponsored the controversial voucher bill that would subsidize private school tuitions with taxpayer money. The bill passed the Legislature and then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signed it into law, but a petition drive got the repeal measure on the ballot and voters overwhelmingly rejected what the Legislature had done.

Urquhart, while a staunch Republican who stands for strong conservative principles, has not been shy about calling out members of his own party when he has felt it necessary.

He was one of the early critics of former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, boldly questioning the A.G.'s ethics long before Shurtleff, along with his hand-picked successor John Swallow, faced numerous felony corruption charges.

More recently, when his colleague, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, was appointed president of the eight-campus Utah College of Applied Technology, Urquhart publicly said he would vote not to confirm Osmond because he didn't think he had the skills. He also questioned how UCAT is run and said reforms were needed.

He also made some enemies in his party when he briefly flirted with the idea of running against veteran U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch in the 2006 Republican primary.

Urquhart says after retiring from the Legislature he will amp up his law practice and work on a philanthropic project to bring more trained medical care to the African country of Tanzania.

But he's not quite finished at the Legislature.

In this, his last session, he will try to pass an expansion of Utah's hate crimes law that includes gays and lesbians as a protected class. And, he will try to abolish the death penalty in Utah. —