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A bill creating a primary election for the State Board of Education skated through the Utah House on Monday with a 65-8 vote.
Described as a sort of safety net by its sponsor, West Valley City Republican Rep. Craig Hall, HB110 would take effect only if the House and Senate are again unsuccessful at creating a new election method for the school board.
"We all have our favorite way to select school board members that's not what this is about," Hall said. "If we cannot agree, all this bill would do is add a primary election so we don't have five, 10, 15 people on the general election ballot."
State law currently calls for an appointed nominating committee to screen candidates before forwarding names to the governor, who then places two names per seat on the ballot.
But that method was ruled unconstitutional in 2014 by a federal judge, who wrote that the "unfettered discretion" of the governor and nominating committee to accept or reject candidates based on ideology and philosophy violates candidates' free-speech rights.
The judge ordered the names of three rejected candidates be restored to the 2014 ballot, and Gov. Gary Herbert responded by declining to convene a nominating committee for the 2016 election.
Debate over whether school board members should be partisan, nonpartisan or appointed led to an impasse between the House and Senate in 2015. And until a new election system is put in place, the state elections office has determined that every candidate for state school board will be placed on the November ballot.
"There is no mechanism in state code for a primary election," Hall said.
In 2014, 70 individuals filed as candidates for the state school board, 18 of those vying for a single seat.
And the potential for a large candidate pool in November could lead to winners being selected with low levels of voter support, according to Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, who spoke in favor of Hall's proposal during debate.
"This bill provides the only sensible approach for avoiding a serious plurality issue," Draxler said.
In past years, the Utah House has tended to support nonpartisan election systems for the state school board, which would include the primary and general election pathway created under Hall's bill.
Representatives from the Utah governor's office have also suggested in committee hearings that a primary election is the simplest fix for the 2016 election.
But the bill faces a tougher challenge when it reaches the Utah Senate, where lawmakers traditionally prefer either a partisan or an appointed structure for the state school board.
Earlier this month, the Senate passed its own bill to create a temporary solution for the 2016 election.
That proposal, sponsored by Ogden Republican Sen. Ann Millner, would reconvene the nominating committee with a charge to screen candidates for the governor's consideration using only objective criteria.
Opponents of Millner's bill have suggested its mandate for objectivity is unrealistic and sets up the state for further court challenges.
Millner's proposal was heard last week by members of the House Education Committee who voted to hold the bill in committee for further consideration.