SALT LAKE CITY — After drawing harsh criticism Tuesday, Gov. Gary Herbert backed off of an attempt to get lawmakers to address an issue related to the controversial Common Core standards in Utah at next week's special session of the Legislature.
"The legislative branch has not been grafted into the governor's re-election campaign," House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said in a statement after the Deseret News reported the issue may be added to the May 18 agenda.
The governor's spokesman, Jon Cox, told the newspaper it would be considered if members of the State Board of Education agree to endorse Herbert's new opposition to mandatory high school SAGE testing at their meeting later this week.
But Cox said Tuesday the governor can wait, although action would be needed before students return to school in the fall.
"If legislators would like more time to review this potential change, the governor is willing to accommodate that request," Cox said. "A second special session in the summer is something he would consider."
Herbert reversed his long-standing support for Common Core at the state GOP convention in late April but still lost 45 percent to 55 percent to his Republican challenger, Overstock.com Chairman Jonathan Johnson.
The two candidates will face each other in the June 28 primary.
Common Core, viewed by Johnson and other critics as taking away local control, sets benchmarks in math and English for SAGE, the student assessment of growth and excellence, which is administered to students beginning in the third grade.
Herbert has said he now opposes both the Common Core and SAGE testing because the continuing controversy over the standards is hurting Utah students. Cox said only the State School Board can stop Common Core, but lawmakers can end SAGE.
But Hughes' statement makes it clear there's little interest in dealing with the issue at next week's special session, called by the governor to restore vetoed education funds and consider a resolution opposing a new national monument in Utah.
"We do not take (action) on a weighty issue like this without public hearings and necessary deliberation. This process is not suspended even when the governor has a rough time at a state convention," the speaker said.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, agreed lawmakers should take more time.
"I think the speaker has the better of this argument," King said. "The governor is feeling heat. There's just no two ways about it. Everyone knows it. I'm not interested in being a pawn, or being in a political tug-of-war."
Johnson, who told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Monday he saw Herbert's new position and push for legislative action as "a purely political move on his part," added new criticisms in a statement Tuesday.
"The House and Senate are not playgrounds to be used to keep office for a third term. The governor has had six years to remedy the federal program Common Core that he helped author," Johnson said.
He said if Herbert "truly cared about this issue," he would not have vetoed a bill in 2014 to expand parental review of school materials.
"Utah voters will see this move by the governor as exactly what it is, a ploy to continue his 26-year political career," Johnson said.
Cox said the issue of SAGE testing has been debated by the State School Board for a year, and that the 2016 Legislature already agreed to eliminate the testing mandate for high school juniors.
"The governor believes that expanding this change to include all high school students seems like a reasonable next step," Cox said. He said the issue "is certainly top of mind for many Utah parents as students participate in end-of-year testing."
As for the timing of Herbert's proposal, Cox said, "Unlike Washington, D.C., government in Utah doesn't close up shop during an election year. As problems arise, the governor will continue working to resolve them."
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