The House Business and Labor Committee voted along party lines Friday to support a proposed amendment to Utah Constitution's barring the state from discrimination or preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.
Ward Connerly, a former member of the California Board of Regents who has worked to pass similar laws and constitutional amendments in California, Washington, Michigan and currently Arizona, is backing the amendment.
"These states have said, 'We believe all people should be treated equally,' and that's what we have before you," Connerly told the committee.
Democrats accused the bill's sponsor, Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, of failing to seek input from community and minority leaders before bringing it to the committee.
"Representative, it is awful. To pull this bill out two days ago and ram it down the throats of this community, is awful," Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, told Oda. "This is big, and it deserves public input."
Oda said Biskupski's accusations were "improper," before noting that the bill would have to be approved by two-thirds of both the House and the Senate before going to voters in November, allowing for plenty of time to comment.
Rep. Susan Duckworth, D-Magna, said that amending the Utah Constitution should require a "little more dialogue with everyone within our state," before being approved by the Legislature, rather than afterward. Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, accused Oda of relying on hearsay rather than citing specific examples of discrimination or reverse discrimination.
"I have asked whether you have any specific cases of preferential treatment or discrimination, and all I have heard is, 'Well, no,' " King said. "We should not be in a position to move forward to amend the state constitution based on anecdote."
"I think in the end, fairness is going to rule. That's why we have a general election, so the people can speak," Oda said in his closing comments, before the bill was approved.
The measure now heads to the full House, where the GOP Caucus, which holds 53 of 75 seats, broke out in applause when the proposed amendment was presented Thursday.
If approved by 50 votes or more in the House, the measure will proceed to the Senate, where Republicans have 21 of 29 seats.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, predicted HJR24 would clear the Senate with relative ease.
"The biggest problem is the quota system at the universities," Waddoups said. "We're not getting necessarily the most qualified students there because of it."
Waddoups could not name any specific instance where quotas and reverse discrimination have occurred in Utah. He said he got his information about universities using quotas from Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem.
A few years ago, Dayton was one of several vocal critics of the University of Utah Medical School's diversity policy, claiming it engaged in "social engineering" by favoring women and minorities over white, male Mormons. An audit found women and minorities were admitted at a higher rate than white males (about 50 percent rate compared to 20 percent), but said there was no evidence of religious bias.
Cathy McKitrick contributed to this report.