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Nolan Karras

Both Republicans facing off in Tuesday's gubernatorial primary indicate support for a tuition tax credit bill that surfaced last Legislature.

But observers believe the support is unequal — which could be good or bad for voters, depending on their stands.

The Deseret Morning News asked Jon Huntsman Jr. and Nolan Karras about two public education issues: tax credits, and how each candidate would prepare the state for a wave of new students. The candidates' full responses can be found online here.

Tuition tax credits resurfaced in the 2004 Legislature under a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem. The bill sought a tax credit worth half of the student's private school tuition, with a maximum credit of $1,500 for kindergartners and $2,000 for older students; current private school students were ineligible.

Huntsman said he believes in tuition tax credits and supports Ferrin's bill. But he said a voucher bill for special education students, which Gov. Olene Walker vetoed last session, should become law first.

"Before implementing Ferrin's bill, we should pass the Carson Smith Special Needs Bill, and include broader student categories," Huntsman said. "This will provide the market test for choice in education. With the information gathered from this test, Rep. Ferrin's bill can be implemented more effectively."

Karras, chairman of the State Board of Regents, says he would have signed Ferrin's bill if the Legislature, presumably with public input, passed it.

"I philosophically support giving parents as many choices as possible in educating their children. However, I will be vigilant in protecting the public education system. And I will oppose any drastic change that will erode the public education system."

In an interview, Karras elaborated, saying he would like to get both sides of the issue together and "see if we can put something together that makes sense to both sides . . . If we work together, we can try to take care of some of the pain."

Education Excellence Utah, a pro-tuition tax credit group, believes Karras' stand indicates weak support for tuition tax credits by saying he would sign it but not saying he would help implement the change.

"Nolan Karras, in many ways, sounds like he is protecting himself," Ed-Ex Utah spokesman Royce Van Tassell said. He notes Karras declined to answer Parents for Choice in Education's pre-GOP convention questionnaire on school choice, including tuition tax credits. The silence was interpreted as opposition.

Tax credit opponents don't go that far. But they see a glimmer of hope in Karras' response.

"I'm a little disappointed in both answers . . . (but) I have some encouragement in the last part of Karras'," Utah PTA President JoAnn Neilson said. "Part of me that's naive hopes that whomever gets in there will do what's best for Utah . . . and that bill was not what was best for Utah."

Arguments for and against tuition tax credits turn on the issue of money for Utah schools; supporters say it will help education, funding opponents say it will hurt.

And money is a critical issue for public education. Despite a relatively high tax burden, Utah spends the least per student in the country.

Some 145,000 new schoolchildren are expected to enroll in Utah public schools in the next decade. Some researchers say their families will provide more tax dollars to pay for their schooling; others fear there won't be enough.

In response to the Deseret Morning News both Huntsman and Karras indicated the state must be creative. Neither candidate supports a general tax increase.

Rather, Karras wants to examine state funding formulas to see whether spending could be smarter. He wants to see if schools could use more technology, such as distance learning or Internet courses, to drive down costs. He wonders if more could be done to encourage more students to earn associate's degrees while in high school, saving on higher education costs.

Huntsman says he would improve education funding through expanding the tax base for education by attracting more high-paying and quality companies. He would follow universities' example in attracting private donations to public schools. He would support trust land swaps and the APPLE Initiative, which asks the U.S. government to compensate Western states for undevelopable federal lands.

Both candidates say they also would give more power to locals.

"We should be leaving most decisions, including raising revenue, up to local governments rather than handing down unfunded or under-funded mandates from the state level," Huntsman said. "In the context of overall tax reform, I believe raising more revenue locally for schools and local government should be considered . . . (But) where taxes are increased in one area, they should be lowered in one or more other areas to compensate."

Karras would support giving local school districts more flexibility to use local tax revenues how they see fit. Currently, property tax levies are restricted to specific purposes.

"We have to be as innovative and creative as we can be," Karras said. "To me, this means pushing issues down to the local level and giving local school officials the flexibility they need. In return, I will require a much higher level of accountability, using outcome-based measures. We can't cut corners when it comes to our children's education."

But some worry shifting the tax burdens to locals would breed inequity. For instance, Park City School District is a much more tax wealthy area than, say, South Sanpete. Property tax hikes therefore generate far more money in the resort town than in rural communities or even in such a large urban district as Davis.

"I would be concerned with anything that is not funded from the state sources as a whole," Utah School Superintendents Association executive director Gary Cameron said. "There have been various kinds of suits filed in close to half the states for this very issue of inequity. We certainly don't want to build ourselves into a box."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com