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Al Hartmann, Associated Press pool
Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins

The November referendum vote is going to be clear: Do you want vouchers? Yes or no.

In a rare move, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Friday that the public will have a straight up or down vote on a universal voucher program because the amendment law, HB174, which some said could enact a voucher program by itself, cannot stand on its own.

"Should HB148 be rejected by the voters under the referendum before us , HB174 would be without legal meaning," Associate Chief Justice Michael J. Wilkins said in the ruling.

The ruling came just hours after the high court heard arguments from both voucher supporters and opponents on what the ballot language should be. It usually takes weeks for justices to come back with a decision.

Those on both sides of the voucher issue say they are pleased that the voucher issue now has more clarity, though voucher supporters were hoping to nix the referendum vote all together.

"We did it right, we did it the right way," said Carmen Snow, Utah PTA president and a member of the anti-voucher Utahns for Public Schools. "The message here is that the people have a say in issues that are as vital as this and that are going to concern the children of Utah."

"We got the clarity that we were hoping to get, and now we need to get out there and continue to educate the community on the benefits of this voucher program," said Leah Barker, spokeswoman for Parents for Choice in Education. "And in the end I am confident that we are going to have the votes that we need."

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has said that had the high court not made it an up-or-down vote this November, then he might have had to call legislators to act in a special session.

That won't be needed now, said Lisa Roskelley, Huntsman's spokeswoman, who said the governor now wants people to educate themselves about vouchers.

Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he was not disappointed that the Supreme Court disagreed with his legal opinion that HB174 stands alone and would implement the voucher program without HB148.

"I'm glad they ruled so quickly," said Shurtleff. "Sooner was better than later on this."

Shurtleff has been on the forefront of the legal battle — deciding that the State Board of Education had to implement vouchers last month because of the extensive voucher language, originally in HB148, that was repeated in HB174. HB174 can't be subject to a referendum vote because it passed by a referendum-proof two-thirds vote.

The high court slapped that idea down Friday, saying that HB174 was only an amendment to HB148 and so could not stand on its own. And though it is not subject to a referendum vote, it is subject to the consequences of a referendum on HB148.

"The courts agree with me maybe half the time, disagree with me half that time. That's how it goes," said Shurtleff.

Shurtleff also said this week that he had terminated the "special attorney general" status of Jean Hill and Carol Lear, attorneys who work for the State Board of Education, saying they had given the panel advice counter to his.

Also within the past few weeks, voucher supporters and critics had both appealed to the Supreme Court to change the language on the 100-word ballot written by the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel to more "accurately" explain the issue.

Up for referendum vote is HB148, the original voucher law that would provide Utah families with a private-school tuition voucher, ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student based on the parents' income.

It also would appropriate $9.2 million for mitigation money to hold schools fiscally unharmed for five years after a student leaves and goes to a private school.

The ballot language describes the parameters of the voucher program and then poses the question of whether the voter is for or against voucher bill HB148 taking effect.

But the language does not mention anything about HB174, the companion bill that passed by two-thirds majority, making a few minor changes to the original law.

Voucher supporters had argued that HB174 would also implement a voucher program and therefore voters wouldn't be voting for or against vouchers by being asked to repeal HB148. They argued that the best way to solve the problem would be for the court to declare the referendum petition constitutionally flawed, since voters who signed the petition thought they would be voting on a voucher program.

But voucher opponents wanted the ballot to say that if HB148 is repealed, then no other voucher legislation would be enacted. And above everything they felt the public had a right to vote on the issue

Nonetheless, under the court's ruling, the Office of Legislative Research was correct in the ballot language and both challenges were rejected.




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