Jon Huntsman Jr.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said for the first time Thursday that he'd veto a pair of controversial bills aimed at banning so-called gay-straight alliances in public high schools and at controlling what students are taught about evolution.

"If they look and feel like they did in earlier incarnations, I will veto them. We'll have to see what they look like when they reach my desk," Huntsman told the Deseret Morning News following his monthly press conference televised on KUED Channel 7.

"In fairness, with all bills, I wait until they get to our office because in some cases they never make it that far," the governor said. "In many cases, they change so dramatically en route."

During the half-hour news conference, Huntsman said the bills have been "largely watered down and diluted into fairly benign statements" and may never get through the Legislature.

Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who said he was surprised at the governor's veto threat. "Why doesn't he like them? What's wrong with them?" Buttars asked. "I find it amazing he'd make those kind of comments, and he's never asked to talk to me."

The governor, who had earlier raised concerns about the need for Buttars' bills, had talked early on in the 45-day session about avoiding so-called message bills and staying focused on more important issues.

"These are no message bills," Buttars said. "These are solid pieces of legislation that involve morality. Morality isn't a 'message bill.' "

A vote on overriding vetoes of those bills "would be very close," Buttars said.

SB96, which would have teachers refrain from telling students as fact that humans evolved from apes, has already passed the Senate but has yet to be heard in the House. House Majority Whip Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, has said he cannot support the bill.

SB97 passed the Utah Senate Thursday on a final third vote of 17-11 after Buttars requested all senators cast votes, a move that required Senate President John Valentine to be plucked from a meeting in the Governor's Office, Buttars said.

The vote on the bill, which seeks to allow school boards to approve or deny clubs without fear of lawsuits, was preceded with an apology to an openly gay colleague about strong language regarding the "homosexual agenda" in Wednesday night's debate.

"On a personal level, I wish to express my respect, regard, esteem and affection to my colleague, Sen. Scott McCoy, and regret the personal implications that came out of yesterday's discussion," said Sen. Gregory Bell, R-Fruit Heights. "Above all, the importance of a person has to be kept paramount. And not just a person, but people. I hope in some measure that will express the feeling of those in this body."

McCoy challenged the bill as giving school boards no direction and putting the whole state, rather than the taxpayers of a local school district, on the hook to pay for legal challenges to local board decisions.

The bill goes to the House for debate.

Huntsman, who made economic development a centerpiece of his campaign, said after the taping of his news conference that he did not believe the controversy surrounding the bills was hurting the state's efforts to attract new businesses.

The debates over the bills are counteracted, the governor said, in other ways, including the success of Utah athletes in the 2006 Winter Games going on in Torino, Italy.

"There are a lot of good messages coming out of our state. I think they're overwhelmingly positive," he said. "People actually see a lot of good in our state. All states have their idiosyncracies."