Pro-voucher ads urge voters not to let a national teachers union tell them how to vote next Tuesday, yet the pro-voucher movement itself is receiving three-fourths of its funds from one man Park City millionaire Patrick Byrne.
"I don't know if this would even be a fair fight" in Utah "if it were not for (Byrne's cash) put into this game," said state Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, a founder of one pro-voucher group, called the Informed Voter Project, created by the Utah Legislature's GOP leadership.
Between the Parents For Choice in Education political issue committee, run by pro-voucher advocates, and Hughes' IVP, Byrne (along with his family and a foundation he helps to direct) has donated more than $3 million to the pro-voucher movement, new financial reports show.
That matches the $3 million or so that the National Education Association, a national teachers union, has put into its anti-voucher campaign here. The NEA gave money to the Utah Education Association, the state's largest teacher union, which in turn gave money to Utahns For Public Schools, the main PIC that funded the main anti-voucher campaign.
Contributions to groups on both sides total nearly $8 million, pre-election reports show. But more money than that will undoubtedly be spent before Election Day, as last-minute ad and voter-contact campaigns rush to a close.
The Informed Voter Project will have to ask Byrne for more money to pay for a huge, 250,000-piece mailer that will be sent out this weekend, Hughes says. That mailing will cost about $100,000, said Hughes, and the $65,000 in cash left in his PIC is already committed to other expenses.
Some politicos estimate that perhaps only 250,000 Utahns will vote statewide on the voucher issue, listed as Referendum No. 1 on Tuesday's ballot. And so Hughes' last-minute effort could have some effect on the race, he believes.
This is a municipal election year. Referendum No. 1 is the only statewide issue, although a number of towns and cities have local races and a few counties have countywide ballot questions as well. Still, for many Utahns, Referendum No. 1 will be the only issue on their ballots.
The new reports show that Byrne, president and chairman of the board of Overstock.com, a Web-based retail buying operation, has donated, along with his family, $2.9 million to PCE. That donation is 78 percent of the PIC's overall contributions.
Byrne is the only contributor to the Informed Voter Project at $200,000. That PIC was started by the GOP leaders of the Utah House and Senate who voted for and advocated HB148 in the 2007 Legislature. That was the main voucher bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
The NEA has also given about $3 million to the anti-voucher groups in Utah.
So the extensive media campaigns supporting and opposing vouchers were basically funded by a national public education teachers union and one man, Byrne.
The pro-voucher money comes from Byrne, his immediate family and the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, a foundation where Byrne is a member of the board of directors. Friedman, now dead, was a famous free-market economist who advocated public support for private schools back in the 1950s.
"It is interesting to compare reports and see that we have 2,500 individual contributors," said Lisa Johnson, Utahns for Public Schools spokeswoman. "Most of (PCE) money comes from the Byrne family, and the others are large checks from a special-interest niche rather than broad-based support across the state."
But voucher supporters say at least Byrne is actually from Utah with a vested interest.
"He's close to it, he's here ... he has a vested interest in citizens here, he is an employer who employs over 1,000 people and a has vested interest ensuring that he has qualified staff and that begins with a solid education," PCE spokeswoman Leah Barker said.
Utah has no campaign limits for statewide elections, either for candidates and ballot issues. So, pouring millions of dollars into the voucher battle is perfectly legal.
However, the large donations by the NEA and Byrne would be prohibited in federal elections and in many other states, which have individual and PAC donation limits.
Other large donors to the Parents For Choice in Education PIC include: Advocates for School Choice, a group based in Washington, D.C., that works for school choice across the nation, $350,000; the Parents For Choice in Education corporation, $250,000; Thomas Kempner, $100,000; The PCE Foundation, $40,000; auto dealer and Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, $20,000; and Utah County Legislative PAC, $15,000. That Utah County PAC is run by Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, and Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo. Those men are also involved in Hughes' IVP.
The Utahns For Public Schools PIC got 90 percent of its money from the NEA and the UEA, reports show. Other large donors include: Committee for Quality Education, $35,000; Susan Sandler, $10,000; the Jordan Education Association, $10,000; various state public education teacher associations, $5,000 each; and Marilyn Kofford, $5,000.The pro-voucher PCE and the anti-voucher Utahns For Public Schools together have raised $7.2 million, reports show. The GOP leaders' Informed Voter Project, in favor of vouchers, will end up spending about $300,000. And the Community For Quality Education, a national anti-voucher PAC, has spent $336,000 in Utah in its separate anti-voucher campaign, its report shows.