Voucher proponents filed suit Thursday to clarify what the public will be voting on regarding vouchers this fall and to correct an "inaccurate" ballot title.
Voucher critics, however, said the lawsuit filed in the Utah Supreme Court only further muddies the issue for voters, and the plaintiffs don't have the legal standing to challenge the ballot title.
To add to the confusion, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Thursday that he and legislative leaders intend to let voters decide in November whether they want the state to have a private-school voucher program.
But Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, and House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said that's not what they meant when they agreed to issue a joint statement with the governor about the voucher vote.
Parents for Choice in Education; Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo; Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George; and a few parents sued the Legislative Research and General Counsel, which wrote the ballot title, and the Lieutenant Governor's Office. The lawsuit asks the Utah Supreme Court to revise the ballot title to clarify what the public will be voting on.
According to voucher supporters, voters won't be deciding whether they want a voucher program because one already exists.
"What they are trying to do will not be effective, and the lawsuit adds to the confusion and creates a lot of difficulty for all the parties, especially the voters," said Janet Jenson, attorney for the anti-voucher Utahns for Public Schools.
HB148 is the original voucher law that provides families with private-school tuition vouchers ranging from $500 to $3,000 per year, scaled to income. That bill is now stayed, pending a referendum vote in November.
Meanwhile, voucher supporters say that HB174 a voucher amendment bill that has much of the same language as the original bill is currently in effect and supersedes much of the original law. The amendment deletes the $9.2 million appropriation that would go toward holding districts harmless for funding loss when students leave public schools.
The voucher supporters say that means there is already a voucher law on the books, one that only waits to be implemented by the Utah Board of Education. And Utah election law prohibits referenda on repealed and superseded laws.
However, the ballot title refers to the entire voucher program, including sections that are written in HB174. So, proponents say, it would seem that voters are deciding on whether or not they want a voucher program in Utah, when there already is one established.
So the lawsuit is intended to clarify exactly what people are voting on which could be merely the funding appropriation and a handful of other sections that are not in HB174.
"It's a huge disservice to Utah voters to not have clarification on what they are voting on," said Doug Holmes, chairman of Parents for Choice in Education. "This seems the most expedient way to get that clarity."
However, there is some confusion among the petitioners in regard to the ultimate goal of the lawsuit. Bramble said in no way is the group attempting to stand in the way of a vote in November. But Urquhart, an attorney, said that one sidelight of the lawsuit _ but not the main goal of the suit _ is that the Utah Supreme Court could call off the Nov. 6 vote.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who is defending the Lieutenant Governor's Office, said he will have a response by Tuesday and will also explore whether the group can legally challenge the ballot title.
Meanwhile, until the Utah Board of Education gets some specific answers on implementing what they call a fragmented bill, board members are not going to create a voucher program, a fact that has irked voucher supporters.
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