Matt Gade, Deseret News
MURRAY — Education groups Monday endorsed the Count My Vote initiative to change the state's unique system for choosing political party nominees, saying GOP delegates aren't making schools enough of a priority.
"That really gets to the heart of why we're here today," Vik Arnold, a Utahns for Public Schools board member and a former Utah Education Association political director, said at a news conference outside the Utah PTA office.
Arnold said while opinion polls over the years have shown the public is willing to pay higher taxes to boost spending on schools, delegates selected by members of Utah's majority Republican Party aren't making education a priority.
When confronted with the results, Arnold said, lawmakers have told him they don't have to pay attention to polls, just to the delegates able to nominate candidates at a party convention rather than holding a primary election.
"We'd like to see the Legislature really put its money where its mouth is. They say they are strong supporters of public education and our schools, but we don't see that when it comes time to finance our public schools," Arnold said.
"The current system of choosing candidates in Utah puts the decision-making power in the hands of the very few," Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said.
The teachers union leader said given what she called a "huge disconnect" between Utahns and party delegates, that situation "is very concerning to me, and it should be to all Utah voters."
A Utah Foundation survey in 2012 found that the top priorities of GOP delegates were protecting states' rights, creating a business-friendly economy, adding jobs, allowing mining and grazing on federal lands, and reducing crime.
As in 2010, the survey found Republican delegates were the only group not to rank improving public education among their top five priorities. Education did move from 11th place in 2010 for the GOP delegates to No. 6 in 2012.
A separate foundation survey in 2012 found that Utah voters ranked education behind only their concerns about jobs and the economy. Most voters in the survey said spending for schools should definitely be increased.
Other groups joining in the call for supporting the initiative petition drive underway to move the state to a direct primary system include the Utah PTA, Utah School Boards Association and the state's school superintendents.
Count My Vote has until mid-April to collect more than 100,000 voter signatures from at least 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts in order to qualify for the November general election ballot.
James Humphreys, public relations director for the organization created to oppose the initiative, Protect Our Neighborhood Elections, said it's hard to make the case that Utah schools are underfunded.
"Do we have to raise taxes and slow our business climate down?" Humphreys asked. "Education is the No. 1 priority of the state. It has been for decades. We spend more on education than on anything else."
Earlier Monday, Humphreys and Taylor Morgan, a co-chairman of Count My Vote, spoke to students at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics about the pros and cons of the initiative but did not take questions.
Morgan said allowing candidates to qualify for a spot in a primary election by gathering voter signatures would increase voter turnout, calling participation in caucus meetings "pitiful."
He said the number of GOP and Democratic delegates equals only 0.03 percent of the state's voting-age population, and both women and young voters are underrepresented.
Humphreys said it's a myth to believe more Utahns will vote if the system is changed. Currently, candidates with enough delegate support are able to advance to the general election.
He also said while it is important to involve more women and young voters in the delegate process, there is no information available about how many actually ran in the past to represent party members.
Count My Vote is already winning in fundraising, according to the latest financial disclosures filed with the state elections office.
Alliance for Good Government, Count My Vote's fundraising arm, collected nearly $811,000 through the end of the year, compared with just more than $9,200 for the Utah First Political Issues Committee raising money for the opposition.
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