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Legislators upset over veto request

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Two legislators are ticked they didn't get a fair hearing with the State Board of Education before the board urged the governor to veto their bills — contrary to what they call an agreement struck last year.

But it doesn't sound as if the governor is eager to veto those targeted bills.

And the board's new chairman on Tuesday told the Deseret Morning News that maybe it's time to go about things in a more legislative-friendly way.

"There is no doubt there is a separation of powers ... but the government does not prosper when there is not good feelings and good relations with each other," board chairman Richard Sadler said. "If we act too independent of each other, then the most important thing that should happen, and that is the education of children in Utah, gets lost in a power struggle. And that's not what we're interested in."

The board voted Friday to ask Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to veto SB162, which requires gubernatorial and/or legislative approval before schools can accept federal money for education programs that cost the state more than $100,000. It also urged the governor to exercise line-item veto power on SB2, the "education omnibus bill" that rolled a dozen money-linked school bills into the schools' $2.5 billion budget, the Minimum School Program Act.

The board feared SB162, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, could affect programs from school lunch to career and technical education, though many viewed it as targeting No Child Left Behind.

SB2's omnibus nature bothered the board, particularly considering three of those bills had been defeated. The board's letter to the governor urges he exercise line-item veto power, allowed on budget bills, "to state without equivocation that an abuse of power is not appropriate." And if the bill isn't a budget bill, then board member Kim Burningham said he believes it's unconstitutional to bundle unrelated bills.

But it doesn't sound like the governor will take up the board's request.

"We don't see (SB2) as an appropriations bill" because it sets policy, Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said, adding constitutional questions would have to be taken up with legislative attorneys. "Certainly there's a lot in there we support ... it's a lot of education funding."

As for SB162, Roskelley said, "it's going to go through our review. But it's actually, from my understanding ... fairly in line with current practice for other state agencies."

Almost every year the state board asks the governor to veto one or two bills, and hasn't made a big deal over what the bills' sponsors might think. But apparently that has changed.

Last year, the board asked the governor to veto bills regarding Ritalin, student clubs and bonding. Dayton and Stephenson said legislators questioned why the sponsors couldn't present their bills to the board first, and that the board agreed to allow such presentations in the future. Both were surprised when they were advised of the board action by phone, but received no invitation to present their bills. They say the school board's agenda wasn't specific enough to indicate the board might seek a veto.

The board has had a legislative review every year after the session, and that's the agenda item under which vetoes, if any, are sought.

"The state board seems like they are committed to encouraging frustration with the Legislature and ill will toward the Legislature," Dayton said, saying her bill won't affect current federal programs.

Sadler said he's unaware of a presentation agreement with legislators, but believes it's a good idea.

"We've got to do this differently," he said.

He does, however, note time is against them. The governor has 20 days following the Legislature — this year, until midnight March 25 — to sign or veto bills. But the state school board meets monthly, and as it stands now, wouldn't meet until April to hear legislators' presentations, long after the bill-signing window.

Still, the board is trying to improve relationships. Hours before the veto request, Sadler noted the board sat out of a news conference decrying SB2 so that it could better get along with the Legislature. It also made sure its veto motion included giving the bill sponsors the heads up first. The board also is writing the Legislature a thank-you note for keeping public education its focus this year.

Such public make-nice efforts are perhaps unprecedented.

And yet, the latest slight. Sadler says he's heard from several legislators sharing Dayton's and Stephenson's concerns. Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, sent a letter to his board representative, Bill Colbert, questioning whether the state board even understood the bills and noting board action "fans the flames of distrust."

"I don't think that anyone who voted on the issues in the board (meeting) did so in a matter to hurt anyone," Sadler said. "But if there hasn't been communication, it seems that way ... and that's not appropriate."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com