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Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's push for an employer-sanctions immigration measure aimed at deterring businesses from hiring undocumented workers was stopped cold Wednesday morning when the House, on a close, bipartisan vote, refused to let him open a bill file.

But then, a few hours later, the Orem Republican got a reprieve from Rep. Don Ipson, R-St. George.

"It's alive!" Sandstrom said in a text message.

Ipson just so happened to have a bill he filed that was empty of any language — called a "boxcar" on Capitol Hill — and he volunteered it to Sandstrom so he could plug his E-Verify proposal into it. The bill will now be under Sandstrom's name and he believes it will be available Monday.

It was just another see-saw ride for Sandstrom and the immigration issue that roiled the Legislature last session but has been relatively quiet so far this year. Sandstrom had to ask permission of the entire House to open a bill file after missing Friday's deadline for doing so on his own.

The lawmaker said he "abandoned" the bill because he was still in negotiations with various sides, trying to drum up support.

He said it became clear that support was beginning to wane and so he decided to try and open the bill file from the floor Wednesday — not anticipating any blowback.

Several bill files were opened on the floor without controversy or objection before Sandstrom took his turn at the microphone and, moments after he asked for permission to do it, Rep. John Dougall, R-Highland, stood to speak against it.

Then, Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, took a turn. And Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, spoke as a flummoxed Sandstrom saw his simple motion unraveling before his eyes.

"I was surprised," Sandstrom said. "It was just to open a bill file. I thought it was premature to go after a bill they hadn't seen. But that's politics."

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, who has been a lawmaker for close to a 12 years, said not allowing a bill file to be opened from the floor was "rare." Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, said in his five years, "I've never seen that happen."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, voted against allowing Sandstrom to open the bill file because he abandoned it on Friday.

Lockhart said Sandstrom's actions indicated the bill wasn't a priority.

"Maybe he shouldn't have abandoned it," she said. "The Legislature didn't abandon that bill. He did. Whatever had happened, he decided, 'Whoops, I changed my mind and wanted to run it again.' He made the decision to abandon the bill and not go through the process."

But Sandstrom said he didn't abandon the bill and that it was always a high priority for him.

He's been working on the bill for months, modeling it after Arizona's E-Verify bill that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. That law — sponsored by the recently ousted state Sen. Russell Pearce — imposed tough sanctions on businesses that hired undocumented workers.

Sandstrom hasn't released the language of the bill, but said it's not as harsh as Arizona's law.

Key differences, he said, are that his measure would allow a business on probation for hiring undocumented workers to have a clean slate while Arizona's law keeps the violation on the books forever. He also said his proposal would exempt agricultural employers from being required to use E-Verify.

"I think it's a measured approach," Sandstrom said. "We do things different here in Utah and we are not Arizona."

The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce hadn't taken a position on Sandstrom's bill, but spokesman Marty Carpenter said the prevailing view in the Chamber was to let the federal government handle the issue.

Gov. Gary Herbert has said he would like to see an E-Verify bill emerge from the session and said he didn't want to speculate on the reasons why Sandstrom's measure took the route it did.

"I think we have an opportunity to discuss some of the remedies to the concerns out there," Herbert said. "There is a way to work with the business community to see if we can put more teeth into the program, but I recognize the devil is in the details."

Currently, Utah has an E-Verify law on the books, but it has no sanctions and only affects businesses with 15 or more employees. Sandstrom's proposal could force suspension of a business license for upward of 120 days for an employer knowingly or intentionally hiring an undocumented worker and every company would have to use the federal E-Verify program, no matter how many employees it has.

E-Verify is run by the federal government and is free to employers, though critics charge it costs money to businesses in both equipment and training costs. Supporters say it's the only way to check a person's legal right to work in the United States while detractors charge it's unreliable.

Twitter: @davemontero —

How they voted

Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's attempt to open E-Verify bill failed on 36-37 vote.

Yeas • 36

Barlow; Barrus; Christensen; Cox; Daw; Dee; Dunnigan; Eliason; Frank; Froerer; Galvez; Gibson; Greenwood; Grover; Herrod; Hughes; Ipson; Ivory; Kiser; Last; Mathis; McCay; Morley; Newbold; Nielson; Noel; Oda; Painter; Peterson, V.; Ray; Sandstrom; Sanpei; Snow; Sumsion; Vickers; Wilson

Nays • 37

Anderson; Arent; Bird; Briscoe; Brown, D; Brown; M.; Butterfield; Chavez-Houck; Cosgrove; Dougall; Doughty; Draxler; Duckworth; Edwards; Fisher; Handy; Harper; Hemingway; Hendrickson; King; Litvack; Lockhart; McIff; Menlove; Moss; Perry; Peterson, J.; Pitcher; Poulson; Powell; Sagers; Seelig; Watkins; Webb; Wheatley; Wiley; Wright.

Absent • 2

Hutchings; Wilcox