1 of 1
Deseret Morning News graphic

To no one's surprise, the Utah Senate voted Friday to approve the historically controversial voucher bill after the measure gained narrow approval in the House earlier this week.

But leaders said the Senate's move to suspend the rules, putting the $9.2 million proposal on a fast track, was rare.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said in this case it was an appropriate move since it side-stepped wasting valuable time on a debate that wouldn't change votes.

"This has been an emotional debate for years ...; there would have been no change in anything if we waited," added Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. will sign the bill, spokesman Mike Mower said after Friday's Senate vote.

"Gov. Huntsman has said since he first ran for office that he would support a voucher plan so long as it held public education harmless and was means-tested. This bill meets that criteria," Mower said.

But half of Utahns oppose a government voucher or tax credit for private school tuition, a new poll finds.

The 50 percent against vouchers is a higher percentage of opposition than a month ago, when Dan Jones & Associates polled on the same issue and found 46 percent of respondents opposed.

The survey completed this week for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV was conducted Feb. 6-8 and has a +/-5 percent margin of error.

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said the governor had not told lawmakers what action he would take on the bill, before it passed the Senate on a 19-10 vote, after the House endorsed it by a single vote, 38-37. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans, but vouchers historically have stalled in the House.

HB148 would give Utah parents a private school tuition voucher that would range from $500 to $3,000 per student, scaled to income based on who qualifies for federal reduced-price school lunch. No other state has a voucher system that reaches as many income levels as Utah's would.

The bill, commonly called the Parent Choice in Education Act, calls for $9.2 million in general, not education, funds.

"This state was built by pioneers, and now we are pioneering education reform," said Parents for Choice in Education spokeswoman Nancy Pomeroy. "It's a tradition, and we are happy for all of Utah's children who will be able to get the education that's best for them, that now have real options."

Among the 418 residents surveyed by Jones, support for vouchers didn't appear to hinge on whether they had children attending public school. Of the 153 respondents who had children in public school, 50 percent opposed vouchers, while 51 percent of those who didn't have children in public school opposed vouchers.

But party affiliation showed stark difference of opinion on the issue, as 77 percent of those who said they were Democrats opposed vouchers, while Republicans were 46 percent in favor and 51 percent of those who said they were independent voters were opposed.

Two Republicans voted against the bill Friday, Sens. John Greiner of Ogden and Kevin Van Tassell of Vernal.

And in a press conference Friday, Senate Democrats blasted the measure as bad policy and irresponsible.

"We have watched the Legislature systematically break down the public education system, and this bill is going to have a major impact on the education system in the state.... I am not sure our state can afford three public education systems," said Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, referring to traditional schools, charters and private voucher schools.

Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, presented estimates from the Legislative Fiscal Analyst showing a $327 million price tag on the voucher program after 13 years. She said even though most of the money would be coming from the General Fund rather than the Uniform School Fund it would still use state resources that could go to other programs.

"Once people understand the fiscal ramifications over the long term, I don't see how anyone can be calling this anything more than irresponsible," Pat Jones said.

Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, though resigned to the fact the bill would pass, had concerns about its constitutionality. He had ordered a constitutional review of the measure, but since the bill was expedited he said he would not have the opportunity to receive the review.

And some opponents said the measure is bound to end up in court.

Romero wanted to amend the bill with income eligibility caps on the bill ensuring money only goes to low-income families since under the bill millionaires would be eligible for the voucher.

Comment on this story

He also wanted to appropriate more money for increased oversight over the program to ensure appropriate spending.

But the Senate voted down all amendments. If the bill were to be amended it would have to go back to the House for approval.

Valentine said with the bill being a major policy decision with major fiscal impact he wanted a clear signal early on in order to be able to cover budgetary impacts, which is why leadership bypassed a preliminary and then final vote in the Senate.


Pollster Dan Jones and Sen. Pat Jones are married.

Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: terickson@desnews.com; lisa@desnews.com