Bill could eliminate partisan diversity on the Board of Regents

By By Jay Logan Rogers

By Jay Logan Rogers

The Utah State House of Representatives passed a bill Feb. 6 that would give the governor the freedom to appoint only members of his own party to the state’s Board of Regents.

Prior to the bill, Utah law required that the Board of Regents, the governing body of the Utah System of Higher Education, be made up of no more than eight members of any political party.

However, House Bill 119, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Alexander, R-Provo, would require that all board appointments be made on a nonpartisan basis. The bill passed by a margin of 47 to 22, with voting largely taking place along partisan lines.

“This would allow the governor now to treat the Board of Regents just the way we do the state school board-on a nonpartisan basis,” Alexander said. “It’s not just because we have a Republican governor today. We could have a Democratic governor in a few years. Any governor could appoint the Board of Regents the way they feel is best for the state.”

Rep. LaWanna Shurtliff, D-Ogden, saw a partisan motivation behind the bill.

“It seems every time we turn around, there’s a bill kind of chipping away and making sure that the majority party has most of the seats on these boards and task forces,” Shurtliff said.

However, despite Shurtliff’s strong words, other Democrats were careful to avoid accusing Alexander, majority leader of the House Republicans, of participating in a partisan power grab.

“I do want to tell you that this is not just a simple partisan bill,” said Rep. Brad King, D-Price. “It is cumbersome at times, when you’re trying to get some diversity, both geographic and otherwise, to be limited by the party that someone represents. Sometimes that can be very frustrating, I am sure.”

Rep. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, worried that an unintended effect of the bill might be to eliminate party diversity within the Board of Regents.

All House Democrats present voted against H.B. 119. Only three House Republicans voted against it, including Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas.

“We cannot rely on the governor’s well-meaning intentions to secure a nonbiased and balanced board to reflect the opinions of the entire public at large,” Ure said. “If this new system of appointment is enacted, there will not be a check and balance in place.”

Alexander said he hoped his bill would make the Board of Regents more representative of all regions in the state. However, nothing in the bill mandates that the governor appoint a geographically diverse Board.

Another argument made for the bill was that political partisanship has no relevance to the decisions made by the Board.

“It’s not Republicans voting against Democrats on the Board of Regents, it’s people supporting a university or a college on the Board. That’s where your diversity comes,” Alexander said.

Regents serve staggered five-year terms, so HB 119 would not have a direct impact until 2007, when five Regents’ terms are scheduled to end. If the bill gets passed, Gov. Huntsman will be able to appoint whomever he chooses, regardless of party affiliation, to fill those positions.

Having passed the House, HB 119 now awaits action by the Senate Rules Committee.

[email protected]