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Utah Legislature: Anti-affirmative action measure sinking fast in Utah House

SALT LAKE CITY — Conflicting conservative values may sink a proposed anti-affirmative action constitutional amendment, at least for this legislative session.

Four Republican representatives told the Deseret News they do not support the resolution as currently written.

As a constitutional amendment, HJR24 requires a two-thirds majority to pass. In the House, that means at least 50 votes.

Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, confirmed that, as of Friday, all 22 House Democrats oppose the proposal.

With at least four Republicans saying they are opposed to passing the current resolution and more representatives on the fence, the proposal's chances for success may be slim in the House.

The proposed constitutional amendment prohibits state entities from discriminating or granting "preferential treatment" based on race or sex, among other factors.

On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Kevin Garn predicted that any vote would come down to a few legislators.

"It's really close, it could go either way," he said.

Those Republicans who say they oppose the resolution cited varied reasons for their dissent, but some conflicting conservative values came up again and again: support for the proposal's ideas but a belief that the Utah Constitution should not be changed lightly.

Some dissenting conservatives wholeheartedly support the proposal's ideas, while others believe changes still need to be made, but many agree the amendment needs more time.

"As of right now, I could not support it," said Rep. Steven Mascaro, R-West Jordan, who insists he will be the first to take on affirmative action but thinks the process has been too rushed.

Mascaro said even if the resolution passes the House, there would still not be enough time left in the session to fully debate it.

The resolution has been on hold since Tuesday because it lacks the support to pass, Mascaro said, and since then, he has not seen or heard a "great change of opinion."

For Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, the proposal leaves too many questions.

"The constitution is a very special document," she said. "We need to spend at least a year considering the implications of this change."

North Salt Lake GOP Rep. Becky Edwards agreed, saying she has yet to see convincing proof that preferential treatment is a problem in Utah.

"I have serious concerns about potential unintended consequences," she said. "I would hate to build a barrier when we should be building bridges. Until there have been significant changes or I have seen proof that this is an issue, I couldn't vote for it."

Some of those unintended consequences could have significant effects on higher education in Utah, said Rep. Ronda Menlove, who also sits on the Constitutional Review Commission.

The Garland Republican works at Utah State University and said she has too many questions about how the amendment could impact scholarships and diversity outreach programs at universities.

"I would vote no," she said. "I just don't think we should be changing the constitution without more careful consideration."

Other Republicans, such as Clearfield Rep. Paul Ray, support the proposal but would prefer that an interim committee consider the amendment.

"I think that is likely where it will end up," he said. "I think this amendment is a great idea, but we need to be careful. Right now, I just personally don't know enough to vote yes."

Despite such concerns, many rank-and-file Republican representatives express unequivocal support for the measure.

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said it marks the culmination of the civil rights movement.

"This is where we want to go," he said. "This proves that the civil rights movement worked. Are we to the point where society can accept this? That's for voters to decide."

While higher education has dominated some of the debate, former Utah State University vice president Rep. Fred Hunsaker, R-Logan, dismissed the concerns, saying they are "not as valid as some think they are."

The resolution's sponsor, Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, also downplayed concerns and said he has provided his colleagues enough data to support the proposal.

"I've given them all plenty of data about this problem, but they just don't want to recognize it," he said.

Oda said he is still tweaking the resolution's language and refused to confirm a timeline for bringing it back for floor debate and a vote in the House.

e-mail: jsmith@desnews.com