House Speaker Greg Curtis calls it the plague, or benefit, of "unintended consequences."

And supporters of taxpayer-funded school vouchers for parents who send their child to a private school are a great beneficiary of "unintended consequences."

Curtis, R-Sandy, laid out the hard political facts concerning the voucher issue this past week to his House Republican caucus.

And the bottom line is this: Not only will legislative Republicans do nothing now to try to resolve the voucher issue before citizens vote on one of the voucher bills this coming November, even if voters statewide call for repeal of vouchers at the ballot box, the Legislature may end up not acting on their vote — and a form of vouchers would stay in place.

That's because while some House and Senate districts may heavily vote to repeal vouchers, individual legislators will study how their own constituents voted on the issue. And if, by a narrow margin, an individual legislator's constituents want to keep vouchers — even if overall vouchers fail at the ballot box — don't be looking for such legislators to heed the statewide vote.

Rather, those legislators would act to keep vouchers, because their own constituents voted for them, Curtis explained.

And what can a few votes mean?

Curtis won re-election last November by 20 votes in a Sandy city district that is becoming more moderate.

Yes, admits Curtis, various public opinion polls (including surveys conducted for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV by Dan Jones & Associates) may show that most Utahns are opposed to vouchers.

But polls only indicate, in broad terms, people's feelings at a certain time.

"I did a poll in my district just before my election," Curtis told caucus members Wednesday. "And I was down 7 percentage points with seven days to go." He got to work, walking door-to-door and redoubled his get-out-the-vote effort.

And he narrowly won. So, campaigning can make a difference at the ballot box. And there may be millions of dollars spent by both pro- and anti-voucher advocates before the November election. Polling now on the issue may have no indication as to which side will win, Curtis points out.

Still, a lover of numbers, Curtis said he worked out the following scenario: Assume that in 38 of the 75 House districts vouchers win at the ballot box, 51 percent to 49 percent. Then assume that in the other 37 House districts vouchers lose 60 percent to 40 percent.

Statewide, vouchers would lose 58 percent to 42 percent. But what are legislators supposed to do? Curtis asks.

"Candidly, am I supposed to care how your constituents voted? Or am I supposed to represent my own constituents — where in 38 districts (a majority) voters wanted vouchers" — even if by a narrow margin?

With such an argument, Curtis, a voucher supporter, is clearly laying the political groundwork for conservative legislators to refuse to repeal vouchers, even if statewide citizens vote vouchers down.

"I imagine that after" the November vote, individual legislators will be studying "how their constituents voted" on the controversial voucher issue, Curtis said.

Curtis added that lawmakers shouldn't expect the Utah State School Board to implement voucher rules — as ordered by the Legislature last general session. That's because the first — and main — voucher bill, HB148, is the subject of the citizen referendum. And by law, HB148 is put on hold until the vote.

But the second voucher bill adopted by legislators, HB174, passed by a two-thirds majority and can't be subject to referendum. (Curtis said anyone who claims legislators foresaw the two-bill dilemma is guilty of a "blatant lie.")

Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Republican, has ordered the School Board (which is separately elected) to implement vouchers as outlined in HB174. But the board has refused, saying it wants some legal questions answered.

"The board is just going to stall," claims Curtis. "Vouchers won't be implemented" under HB174 before the November vote.

Legislative Democrats — who oppose vouchers — have called for Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to call a special session so lawmakers can "fix" the two-voucher-bill issue — and clear the way to make sure that, should citizens vote down vouchers this November, the voters' will is followed and vouchers are dead.

But that special session won't happen.

Curtis told his caucus: "There is little the Legislature can, or should, do now. Let the election come. Each of us will look at our own districts' (vote). And then we will decide where to go."

Or more likely, where not to go. It's clearly possible that citizens could vote down vouchers statewide only to see HB174 go forward, and Utahns still have private-school vouchers.


Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com