The Voucher Mess: How we got into it and how we can get out

Senator Scott McCoy

by Senator Scott McCoy
Senate District Two

Assuming the Lt. Governor certifies the requisite number of valid signatures that have been submitted to place the voucher issue on the ballot, the ensuing vote on HB 148, Parents Choice in Education Act, should be properly interpreted as an up or down vote on the issue of whether the citizens of this state want a private school voucher program funded by taxpayer dollars. I believe the vast majority of the nearly 130,000 Utahns who signed their name to the petition, including myself, were seeking a straight-forward, clear vote on whether we should have a taxpayer-funded private school voucher program. Unfortunately, because there were two bills (HB 148 & HB 174) regarding the creation and implementation of such a program that passed the Legislature last session, there is some ambiguity surrounding the voucher referendum and what its outcome might mean.

During this past legislative session, HB 148 was the primary voucher bill. It passed the House by one vote. When that bill came to the Senate, it was debated and amendments were offered. HB 148 did have some problems that even the voucher proponents recognized. All of the amendments offered were voted down by the Republican majority because if any of those amendments had passed, the bill would have had to go back to the House for further action. Going back to the House was a scary proposition for voucher proponents because they were uncertain whether they could hold their votes in the House. In the end, HB 148 passed the Senate with all eight Democrats and two Republicans voting against it. The Governor signed the bill immediately.

A few days later, another bill, HB 174, School Voucher Amendments, was presented to the Legislature. This bill was explained as a clean-up bill; a bill to fix the very concerns that many of the voucher opponents had expressed during the debate on HB 148. Some of the amendment that we had offered to HB 148 had been incorporated into HB 174. Knowing that the primary voucher bill had been signed by the Governor and wanting to cure some of the more egregious problems with the original voucher bill (like requiring private school teachers to undergo criminal background checks the same way public school teachers must), I, and many of my colleagues opposed to vouchers, voted for HB 174. Little did we know that doing so would create an issue on the referendum front. HB 174 passed the Legislature by two-thirds majorities in both bodies. The effect of this was that the bill became referendum-proof. According to Utah law, if a bill passes by two-thirds majority, it cannot be subject to a referendum. Unfortunately, there is enough of the original bill repeated in HB 174 to implement the voucher program even if the referendum against HB 148 succeeds. In other words, HB 174 appears to be a stand alone voucher bill in its own right. Unfortunately, none of us were made aware of the plans for a referendum on the voucher law when we cast our votes on HB 174.

And therein lies the rub. We find ourselves in the untenable position where it is perfectly possible that the voters could approve the repeal of HB 148 because they oppose a taxpayer-funded private school voucher program while at the same time a taxpayer-funded private voucher program is being implemented pursuant to the referendum-proof HB 174.

So, what to do? Well, here is what I call on Governor Huntsman and my fellow legislators to do. Governor Huntsman should call a Special Session (he likely has to anyway to put the referendum on the ballot for the February Western States Presidential Primary) and put on the Call a bill to suspend the implementation of any taxpayer-funded private school voucher program, i.e., both HB 148 and HB 174, until after the referendum. The bill would instruct the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel to write the ballot language for the referendum to make it clear that the referendum is on the broader question of vouchers. This would make it crystal clear that the referendum is about the issue of vouchers in general; a popular up or down vote on taxpayer-funded private school vouchers. If the referendum passes, the issue would be settled and the bill would bar the implementation of HB 148 and HB 174. If the referendum fails, then game on; Utah has a voucher program. My fellow legislators should support this proposal. This is what was intended in seeking the referendum on HB 148 all along. This is perhaps one of the most important and controversial issues to face the state in many years. It is appropriate that the people should decide the issue in a clear and unequivocal manner.