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Years of stalemate came to an apparent end Thursday, when Utah lawmakers approved a partisan state school-board election bill.
The House has traditionally supported nonpartisan elections, with the Senate preferring partisan elections, leading to regular inaction on the issue even after a 2014 court order left the state without a clear method of selecting school-board members.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, would allow a nonpartisan election to continue this year, but state school-board races would become partisan after November.
"We really don't have time to do anything else," Millner said. "It's the best compromise we can get, and I think we need to support this and move forward."
But Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, sponsor of a competing election bill, said his constituents and the majority of Utah voters overwhelmingly prefer nonpartisan school-board elections.
He was critical of calling Millner's bill a compromise and urged his colleagues to continue pushing for nonpartisan races.
"I view this bill," he said, "as a bill that is, frankly, a partisan bill that has a delayed implementation date."
Current law requires school-board candidates to be screened by a nominating committee, which forwards names to the governor, who then places two candidates per seat on the general election ballot.
But that process was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2014, due to the "unfettered discretion" of committee members to reject a candidate based on politics or ideology.
When lawmakers failed to pass a new law last year, Utah election managers determined that every candidate for state school board would be placed on November's ballot.
Millner's bill originally attempted to skirt the court's ruling by requiring the nominating committee to use only objective criteria when selecting candidates.
That proposal passed the Senate, but it was criticized as implausible.
On Thursday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said it would be "nonsensical" to prohibit a governor from asking a candidate for state school board about their views on education.
"I might as well just put up a dart board and throw darts at it," Herbert said. "Or draw a name out of a hat. That doesn't make any sense to me."
Herbert said there is a need for the school board to have a broader view and not necessarily be slanted by a particular ideology.
He said the common-sense solution would be to create a primary election and allow nonpartisan races to continue in 2016, with lawmakers returning next year to debate a long-term solution.
"Most everybody wants to have balance on the state school board," he said. "We need to come up with a situation that would give us that."
Some lawmakers suggested that additional changes could be made next year, ahead of the first partisan races in 2018.
"We will have time between now and then if we find there is a reaction that is unfavorable," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. "We can come back and address it and find a better way."
But Hall said it's unlikely lawmakers will be able to change the law once partisan elections are in code.
"This body knows very well that will be very difficult," he said.
Other House members said partisan elections are a valid compromise and the best policy for the state.
School-board districts are among the largest in the state, with each board member representing about 250,000 Utahns.
Rep. Douglas Sagers, R-Tooele, said many Utahns, including himself, don't know who their board representative is or what policies that person supports.
"I believe the school board is just as important as we are," he said.
House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said the bill would apply Utah's new dual-track system for partisan elections to the state school board, allowing candidates to bypass the party caucuses and reach the primary by collecting signatures.
"There is a way to get on the ballot regardless of which party you say," he said. "But you do need to say which one."
The House voted 50-23 for the bill, which then cleared the Senate 24-4.
Candidates have until March 17 to file their candidacy for the state school board.
If Millner's bill is signed by the governor, board seats with more than two candidates will be included in the June 28 primary election, according to Mark Thomas, elections director for the Utah lieutenant governor's office.
School board members serve four-year terms; half the board seats are up for election every two years.
"By 2020, you'll have all the candidates be partisan," Thomas said.
For Utahns who are registered members of a political party, Thomas said, this year's school board races will be listed on those parties' primary ballots.
And unaffiliated Utahns will have the option of voting for state school board through a nonpartisan ballot or a Democratic ballot, as that party's primary is open to all voters. Thomas said each county will vary in its process for notifying voters and distributing ballots.
"It's always helpful for voters to be a little proactive and to know what the process is," Thomas said, "so they can be ready for it and help guide what ballot they want to receive."