SALT LAKE CITY — A controversial proposed amendment to the state constitution is moving at record speed through the Utah House, leaving some civil rights groups, legislators and members of a constitutional advisory commission asking why.
"I've never seen anything this big move this fast" through the Legislature in 30 years of legislative experience, said Roger Tew, a lobbyist and member of the Constitutional Review Commission.
Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, sponsor of HJR24 told the Deseret News that he has been working on his amendment for five or six months. He said the idea was brought to him by a local lobbyist with ties to the American Civil Rights Coalition, a national organization fighting against preferential treatment by government of certain individuals or groups.
Under the proposal, state entities "may not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin with respect to public employment, public education, or public contracting."
Oda decided not to make the text public right away "because of all the misinformed rhetoric that would swell up, some of which you heard" in two public hearings Friday.
The bill became public Thursday morning. At noon Thursday, Oda briefed the House GOP caucus in an open meeting. On Friday morning, HJR24 was heard and passed by a House standing committee. On Friday afternoon, Oda took it to the Constitutional Review Commission.
And HJR24 is scheduled for a time certain debate Tuesday morning on the House floor. (Monday is the Presidents Day holiday, and the Legislature is not in session.)
For a constitutional amendment to be made public and passed through the House or Senate in less than a week is unusual.
Earlier Friday, it was standing room only as a House committee passed the controversial resolution.
During the debate, Democrats tried to delay the proposal to provide more time for discussion. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, said it was "irresponsible" to approve the bill without more information.
"I'm surprised the first time we're talking about this is in a committee," he said. "This is not an adequate fact-finding context to talk about amending the constitution."
The hearing became passionate at times, as Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake, accused Oda of trying to rush the proposal through and "ram it down the throats of this community."
Oda called her statement "improper" and argued that the constitutional amendment process is the perfect way to give the resolution the public scrutiny it deserves.
Once the measure is on the ballot, however, it becomes much more divisive, said House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake.
"This is an issue that will divide our community," he said. "Having a dialogue once the amendment is on the ballot is having a dialogue with a gun to your head."
Opponents pushed Oda to provide specific examples of preferential treatment in the state. Oda replied that he "couldn't name names, but I think we all know people who have dealt with this."
Observers noted that the legislation could have unintended consequences.
Commission chairman Jon Memmott, a state court judge and part-time professor, warned Oda that as written HJR24 could do just the opposite of what Oda seeks — the constitutional banning of any discrimination, or preferential treatment, in government employment, contracting or education based on "race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin."
By not including other special categories already in state anti-discrimination law — like religion, age and disability — Oda could end up creating a "higher protected class" for those categories.
Actually, Oda and ACRC want to make it clear that no Utahn or American is discriminated against, nor is any Utahn or American given any preferential treatment by government agencies.
That sounds good, said several CRC members. And at first blush, anyone likely would agree with that goal, they said.
However, CRC members and Reps. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, and Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland, said the state has many programs — both in economic development and in higher and public education — tailored for minorities or disadvantaged groups. They wondered how those "worthy programs" would be affected?
Ward Connerly, a former regent of the University of California system, said no such problems have arisen in California, whose citizens in 1996 passed a similar amendment.
Connerly and Jennifer Gratz, who fought an anti-affirmative action lawsuit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, appeared on Oda's behalf at the cost of ACRC.
American Civil Liberties Union of Utah representative Marina Lowe said she is "deeply troubled" about the implications of the proposal and is concerned that the resolution's supporters have not discussed the changes with state agencies, universities or civil rights and community advocates.
"This is part of a national agenda that will be harmful to our community," she said. "There is no evidence that preference is a problem."
Litvack agreed, calling the resolution a "solution looking for a problem."
"This proposal is not pro-diversity, it's anti-diversity; it's not pro-equality, it's anti-equality," he said.
The CRC did not take a position on HJR24, although several members said they wanted to study it further.
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If, by two-thirds vote, both the House and Senate pass HJR24, it will appear on the November ballot for voter approval or rejection.
Four states have adopted similar constitutional amendments. Colorado voters rejected it recently, Oda said.
Dave Buhler, assistant commissioner of higher education, said, "I wish we had a year to study this."
When the state constitution is changed, "first we should do no harm," said Buhler, a former GOP state senator. "Beware of unintended consequences.
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