The Utah House on Monday passed a controversial bill that would change Dixie College to Dixie State College and allow it to offer six baccalaureate degrees.

"This is probably the most important bill I've run in this House," said Rep. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, sponsor of HB32. "We know that the need is there . . . and the cost to the taxpayers is zero to do it."Lawmakers approved the measure 44-29, but not before attempts were made to amend the bill, which gained committee approval by a large margin last week and is a divisive issue in the higher education community.

A failed amendment by Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, would have allowed three four-year programs to be established by fall 2000 but let the Utah Board of Regents decide whether more programs are needed in 2002.

Hickman opposed the amendment and before the final vote on the bill told lawmakers that the issue wasn't whether Dixie needed programs but was about "process, power, who's in charge and who wants to be in charge."

He noted that Washington County residents, who have raised more than $500,000 to fund the change, have been pushing for four-year programs for the past decade despite having access to baccalaureate degrees through Southern Utah University's University Center in St. George.

Many Washington County residents argue that those programs don't meet the community's needs, and a legislative fiscal analyst reported that Dixie could offer four-year programs at less cost.

Dixie proponents then became outraged last year when they discovered Cedar City's SUU had sat on nearly $500,000 in reserve funds intended for University Center offerings.

SUU said the funds, always intended for the center, had accrued through tuition more quickly than anticipated.

HB32 would give that $500,000 to Dixie, giving it more say in programs. But the regents already gave the college that power, voting last month to give Dixie the university center funds that now go to SUU under an agreement between the two southern Utah institutions.

Enrollment at the center has tripled under SUU's oversight.

Regents repeatedly have urged lawmakers to turn down HB32, saying the governor-appointed board has been charged with the power to oversee the state's nine colleges and universities, including applications for four-year status. Regents also have drafted criteria for becoming a four-year college and have invited Dixie to conduct a study to prove academic and financial feasibility.

Hickman sent a message to the regents Monday when he filed a bill that could be used to revamp the way public universities and colleges are run. The bill was filed by title only and not text, but Hickman will use it if he believes regents or others are too tough on his Dixie College plan.

"We could do away" with the Board of Regents completely, said Hickman, a banker by profession. The chairman and vice chairman of each institution's Boards of Trustees could sit on a "super" board of governance for the whole university system.

And the current office of Commissioner of Higher Education could be eliminated, with some "top staff" people kept on board to handle the administrative work of the new board of governance.

Redesigning higher education governance "is an attempt to bring higher education back to the people of the state," said Hickman, who contends the Legislature and the people have lost control over Utah's colleges and universities.

Board of Regent members are, historically, some of the most powerful people in the state. The governor's appointments to the board are the top plumbs that he passes out every year or so to political friends and those who've given time and money to the top executive's efforts.

"Gracious," responded regent Pamela Atkinson when told of Hickman's proposal. "Without the Board of Regents, trustees of all nine schools would do everything separately. As a regent, I feel I have a perspective on the whole system."

If lawmakers make all the changes Dixie seeks, the St. George school says it wouldn't change its role as a community college but instead pattern itself after Utah Valley State College in Orem. UVSC is a four-year accredited state college that offers limited baccalaureate degrees.

The Northwest Education Research Center report recommends making Dixie a four-year state college akin to UVSC to save money and increase educational opportunities in Washington County.

A 1998 study was conducted for the Washington County Economic Development Council.

The study also predicted SUU would lose about 100 students if Dixie becomes a four-year school, an amount that would not seriously jeopardize growth funding.

"(Utah) can continue to ration access to higher education in the interest of maintaining education quality and keeping peace in the family, although it can be argued that when access to higher education and concerns for the maintenance of quality collide in a culture that prizes education, access is the value that is most likely to prevail," the researchers concluded.

A handful of college presidents, including SUU President Steve Bennion, have spoken against the bill. SUU trustees indicate bill passage would adversely affect regent authority.

"Before any legislative action is taken on this proposal, we believe it is imperative that the regents undertake a thorough, independent analysis of such a change," SUU trustees said in a Friday statement.

"SUU reaffirms its allegiance to the established system of governance in higher education. . . . We recognize that the regents have played a vital role in the past, and we have full confidence that such leadership will continue."

Yet there is some question over the regents' role under state law. Former Gov. Calvin Rampton last week said the Board of Regents was created in 1969 as an advisory panel. SUU contends state law gives regents "control, management and supervision" of state colleges and universities.

Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. contributed to this story.