The Message of Referendum 1

by Senator Mike Dmitrich
Senate Minority Leader

Sen. Dmitrich at News ConferenceFor the past few days since last Tuesday’s election, I have reflected on the results of Referendum 1 and the voluminous follow-up commentary.
Even though 62 percent of voters in Utah rejected school vouchers, 38 percent of Utah voters were in favor of school vouchers, believing they offered a win-win option for parental choice and public school funding. The message of the voucher vote is clear. The high voter turnout, coupled with both the YES votes and the NO votes, indicates that Utah’s citizens are cognizant of the challenges facing public education and want something done about it.

Although I do not support using public funds to subsidize private schools, I do support using public funds to meet every child’s needs through our public education system, which is the option chosen by the overwhelming majority of Utah’s students. I believe the Utah Legislature should listen to the public and, together with teachers, parents, students, and taxpayers, fortify our public education system so it will appropriately meet the needs of all students. In my opinion, the preferred outcome of the voucher election is a superior public school system, and I hope the players in education will take advantage of this opportunity to secure the lifeline of our public schools.

At the end of the day, parents still have the choice of two education systems in Utah, public and private, and both are excellent options.

How the Cookie Crumbles

by Senator Gene Davis
Senate Minority Whip

Sen. Gene DavisSince the pro-voucher cookie ad aired comparing school-age children to stacks of Oreo cookies, we have seen and read endless commentary. Unstated in the analogy is the fact that private interests, not community interests, will be consuming a number of the cookies (our tax dollars). Taxpayers will be paying private industry to educate a select few in schools where there will be essentially no oversight of the tax dollars.

While the private sector may have a role in providing some state services, it cannot provide traditional state services for all citizens because the necessity of profit will always trump service. If public funds are diverted to private education, what control will the taxpayers have on the quality of private schools? What voice will taxpayers have in the qualifications of educators, the curriculum, or even the lunch menu?

Voucher proponents tell us it’s okay to divert our tax dollars to private industry because it will result in more tax dollars for public schools. This assertion is false. Taxpayers will double-fund each student who accepts a voucher, paying once for the voucher and again for a portion of the per-student state funding to the school district.

Prior to casting your vote, please read the Impartial Analysis in the Voter Information Pamphlet prepared by the Legislative Fiscal Analyst. Read the analysis and you will see the cost of vouchers to the state will exceed savings realized by the school districts. Click here to view the pamphlet.

Voucher Costs Will Exceed Savings

by Senator Mike Dmitrich
Senate Minority Leader

Senator Mike DmitrichOn November 6, 2007, voters in Utah will vote for or against the implementation of HB 148, Education Vouchers, passed by the Legislature in February 2007. HB 148 establishes a voucher program to funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools. The amount of a voucher ranges from $500 to $3,000, depending on family income and size. Families at EVERY income level are eligible.

CHOICE is the nucleus of the voucher program. Parents can choose to send their child to a private school and use the voucher to offset the cost. In actuality, if the voucher law is implemented, parents WILL NOT be making the choice. Private schools will be making the choice. Private schools will exercise their prerogative to accept or reject students according to their subjective criteria.

Fewer than half of Utah‘s counties have private schools in their communities. Rural legislators who voted for the voucher program have done a disservice to their constituency. Private school is not an option in their districts, and therefore, the voucher program is not applicable to rural Utah.

Prior to voting November 6, please read the Impartial Analysis of Referendum 1 in the Voter Information Pamphlet. If you are a newspaper subscriber, you should have received a copy with your newspaper within the past two weeks. You should have also received one in the mail. If you do not have a copy of the pamphlet, they are available at public libraries and in all county offices. The entire pamphlet can be viewed online at http://www.utah.gov/ltgovernor (click on the red arrow at the upper left). You can also call Lieutenant Governor Herbert’s office at 801-538-1041, and one will be mailed to you.

During the first five years, the taxpayer will pay the cost of the voucher to the private school from the General Fund AND a portion of the per-student state funding to the school district from the Uniform School Fund for each student who accepts a voucher. The Legislative Fiscal Analyst estimates the total cumulative General Fund cost to be $429 million just for the vouchers for years 1 through 13 (when the voucher program is fully implemented). A tax dollar is a tax dollar, and it is naive to presume that citizens will feel no impact by funding vouchers from the General Fund. Voucher proponents erroneously assert that the implementation of vouchers will bring savings to our public schools. Read the Impartial Analysis carefully and you will see that costs will exceed savings.

Voucher proponents assert that the implementation of vouchers will reduce class size. There is no guarantee this will happen. Even though some students may leave the public school system, fixed costs remain unchanged. There are still buildings to construct and maintain, teachers and staff to pay, utilities to pay, supplies to purchase, etc. If enrollment decreases by a class size, a teacher may be terminated and the students redistributed among a fewer number of teachers, which may result in even larger class sizes.

A typical request for an appropriation of state funds entails a grueling process of accountability before, during, and after the monies are appropriated. I am wondering why taxpayers would vote to forego accountability for their tax dollars by giving a blank check to private schools where there will be essentially no oversight of monies spent.

The public school system is exactly that-education for the public-an opportunity for EVERY school-age child to have a quality education. Utah is a public school state; 96 percent of Utah‘s children attend public school. The core issue is whether or not it is in the best interest of our public education system to subsidize private schools. In a state with the lowest per-pupil expenditure in the nation, it makes sense to spend our limited resources for the benefit of the 96 percent. I urge you to vote against Referendum 1 on November 6.

Politicizing the State Board of Education is a Bad Idea

by Senator Scott McCoy
Senate District Two

Senator Scott McCoyRep. Carl Wimmer is floating a bill that would increase the size of the State Board of Education from its current 15 members to 29 members. It would model the 29 board positions on the current 29 state senate districts. Worst of all, it would require candidates for the State Board of Education to declare party affiliations and subject these candidates to the political convention process (and ultimately straight party ticket voting).

Wimmer’s bill is a solution in search of a problem. The reason this bill is being sought is simple: the State School Board has shown itself to be a truly independent, nonpartisan governmental entity. This, of course, raises the ire of the current Republican leadership because the State School Board has refused to say “how high?” when the Republican leadership says “jump!” The nerve! We have discovered a governmental institution (a constitutionally established one at that) that refuses to mindlessly answer the beck and call of the Republican leadership. Isn’t it obvious that if we don’t reign in this uppity institution, other state agencies and institutions might start getting similar ideas. So how do we get this errant institution back under the thumb? One way is to make sure we pack it with individuals more beholden to Republican leadership than the people who Republican leadership has picked for them to represent.

If Wimmer’s bill were to succeed, then the State Board of Education would simply become another partisan arm of the Republican leadership subject to their gerrymandering and the extremism of the party’s delegates. No longer would sound independent legal analysis and public policy rule the day. One need only look to the most recent voucher controversy to understand this. In that case, instead of the legal analysis that HB 174 was meaningless without HB 148 (a position proffered by an independent State Board and endorsed unanimously by the state’s highest court), we would have the flawed legal reasoning of the Attorney General and the Republican leadership being implemented, resulting in an illegal and unwanted taxpayer funded voucher program.

Politicizing the State School Board will not result in better education for our kids. It will only result in Republican leadership getting their way, right or (mostly) wrong, once again.

What’s Best for Public Ed?

By Senator Mike Dmitrich
Senate Minority Leader
Senate District 27

Senator Mike DmitrichDue to the recent Utah Supreme Court ruling regarding HB148–Education Vouchers (subject of the referendum vote in November), the public will have a straight up or down vote on a universal voucher program for the state of Utah. The Court ruled that a second bill, HB174, Education Voucher Amendments, is inadequate for enacting a voucher program on its own.

Announcing 131,000 SignaturesOn behalf of the Utah Senate Democrats, I applaud the efforts of many groups and individuals for their professional conduct in exercising their constitutional right to bring this issue before the people. We express our thanks to the UEA, PTA, Utahns for Public Schools, the Utah State Board of Education (chaired by Kim Burningham), the Utah State Office of Education attorneys, the 131,000 signers of the petition, and all others who worked tirelessly to arrive at this juncture.

Chair Burningham at Press ConferenceWe also thank all of Utah’s public education employees and volunteers who daily contribute to the success of Utah’s public education system.

As posted previously on our blog, the Senate and House Democrats oppose vouchers. Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, House Minority Leader Ralph Becker and I wrote two letters to Governor Huntsman asking him to call a special session to resolve the confusion created by this phenomenon of circumstances. The Supreme Court ruling has now eliminated the need for a special session, and obviously, we hope the voters overturn the voucher law passed by the Legislature.

Vouchers are not a “bureaucrat and liberal union” issue as has been cited by voucher proponents. Instead, the core issue is whether or not it is in the best interest of our public education system to subsidize private schools. In my opinion, the voucher law is blatantly unfair to Utah’s students, particularly those who reside in rural areas of the state.

The ballot language has been approved, along with arguments for and against vouchers, for publication in the Voter Information Pamphlet. I am very pleased with the argument against vouchers and believe it addresses all relevant concerns for the voters’ consideration. (Click “Read the rest of the entry” below for the complete argument against vouchers.)

Between now and November when the vote takes place, I urge the citizens of Utah to carefully consider the voucher issue and base their vote on a rational evaluation of the broader question: What course of action is best for the public education system in our state?

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Youch! That’s Gotta Sting

by Senator Scott McCoy
Senate District Two

Senator Scott McCoyWell today the Utah Supreme Court added some clarity to the voucher mess. While it did say that the current ballot title penned by the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel will stay just the way it is (i.e., only referencing and analyzing HB 148) the Supreme Court unanimously rejected outright the Attorney General’s and voucher proponents’ legal contention that HB 174 stands alone as a voucher implementation bill. The Supreme Court essentially said that HB 148 and HB 174 are joined at the hip and that without HB 148, HB 174 is meaningless and unenforceable. (“If the voters choose to reject HB 148, HB 174 will not create an additional voucher program.”) So two important implications: 1) a rejection of HB 148 in the referendum will have the effect of also voiding HB 174; and 2) in the meantime until the referendum vote, the Board of Education doesn’t have to implement vouchers based solely on HB 174. Leave it to the Judiciary to maintain a clear head in a crisis.

The biggest loser in this chapter seems to be Attorney General Mark Shurtleff whose legal analysis (and political instincts??) appears to have been dead wrong. I guess Carol Lear and Jean Hill got it right. Instead of trying to fire them, maybe he should listen to them. Note to State Board of Education: Keep taking your counsel from your long-time attorneys and ignore the Big Bully. The Supremes have got their (and your) back. I have a hunch a majority of Utah voters will too.

The Irony of Passing the Voucher Buck (and a response to a little finger pointing)

by Senator Scott McCoy
Senate District Two

Senator Scott McCoyWell the voucher mess has now moved to the courts. Both sides have filed law suits to try and untangle the disaster that is HB 148 and HB 174. The Utah Supreme Court will hear arguments in the two cases this Friday. It will be great political and judicial theater for sure. What I truly love the most about the latest chapter in the voucher drama is the rich irony that we will be saved by the courts. How wonderful it is to see conservative legislators, such as Senator Bramble, who extol the supremacy of the Legislative Branch, throwing up their hands (after the requisite amount of public platitudes about the will of the people and sufficient wailing and gnashing of teeth) and pleading with the Judiciary to sort out this mess over which the impotent Legislature now seems to have no control (or responsibility). So the solution is not to have the political will and intestinal fortitude (i.e., leadership) to fix this mess of our own making but rather to put our fate in the hands of those five wise Justices, even if they are ever prone to judicial activism (i.e., decisions the conservatives don’t like). Talk about passing the buck.

Oh and by the way, the Senate Site recently suggested that all this is somehow the fault of the voucher opponents for picking a vehicle (i.e., a referendum rather than an initiative) that won’t take them where they want to go. Let’s not forget that the bad process that got us where we are today was 1) a poorly conceived original voucher bill and 2) a poorly conceived separate “clean up” bill. The voucher proponents got lucky and passed the poorly conceived HB 148 by one vote. When critics pointed out some real problems with the bill, the voucher proponents realized that the original bill did result in some bad public policy. It was their reaction in running the second poorly conceived bill that set this current unpleasantness in motion.

What the Heck Does That Mean?

by Senator Scott McCoy
Senate District Two

Senator Scott McCoy
Today Governor Huntsman, President Valentine and Speaker Curtis issued the following statement:

 

Statement by Utah’s Governor, President of the Senate,
and Speaker of the House of Representatives

Salt Lake City – The following is a joint statement by Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, President John Valentine and Speaker Greg Curtis:

Citizens bear the ultimate responsibility for how their government operates and how their children are educated. As elected officials, we support the constitutional right of the people of our state to ratify or reject legislation through the referendum process.

We encourage a healthy process and a clear public decision on Utah’s Voucher Policy in November. In order for the referendum process to be effective, the electorate takes on the obligation to make an informed decision when casting their vote. We hope people become educated on this issue and engage in a manner befitting the citizens of a free republic.

A Special Session will not be called since an easy and practical remedy does not exist. We, however, are making our intentions clear: we honor the rule of law and will respect the outcome of the election.

So what does that mean? Let’s take it in reverse order.

“We, however, are making our intentions clear: we honor the rule of law and will respect the outcome of the election.”

“…will respect the outcome of the election.”  Huh? So if the referendum on HB 148 succeeds, that is the voters say NO to vouchers, does that mean these three will lead the way in repealing HB 174, too, or does it mean that they will respect the decision to repeal HB 148 and they will push ahead with the implementation of HB 174 which they maintain is not legally the subject of the referendum? How about a clear statement like: “If the referendum succeeds, then we will repeal HB 174.” Now that would be making their intentions clear.

“We encourage a healthy process and a clear public decision on Utah’s Voucher Policy in November.”

Nice sentiment, but the process was not healthy in the first place because the two bills produced this confusing result. The confusion that exists and the messy process that is now resulting cannot be fixed with mere “encouragement.” It takes leadership. Calling a special session and doing the right thing by making HB 174 also contingent on the outcome of the referendum would not only “encourage a healthy process and clear public decision,” it would guarantee it.

“In order for the referendum process to be effective, the electorate takes on the obligation to make an informed decision when casting their vote. We hope people become educated on this issue and engage in a manner befitting the citizens of a free republic.”

Undoubtedly, the people of Utah will educate themselves and make an informed decision on this issue, but the question remains: If and when the referendum on HB 148 succeeds, will the Governor and the Republican leadership interpret the vote as a repudiation of vouchers altogether, that is both HB 148 and HB174?

“Citizens bear the ultimate responsibility for how their government operates and how their children are educated.”

Citizens bear the responsibility for how their government operates, and as importantly, who operates their government. Watch closely, citizens of Utah. Watch your current leadership take a pass on clearing up this voucher mess and watch to see if they abide by your wishes after the referendum. If they don’t get the picture, maybe then it will be time to change how your government operates by changing who is in charge of operating it.

A Plea to the Governor

by Senator Mike Dmitrich
Senate Minority Leader

Amidst the school voucher mess, the Utah Senate Democrats would like to reiterate their position on HB148 and HB174 intended to enact the voucher law.

For the record, the Senate Democrats voted against HB148, the original voucher bill and subject of the successful referendum. The governor has called a statewide special election for November 6, 2007, and directed that the referendum challenging HB148 be submitted to the voters at that special election.

HB174, another voucher bill containing some, but not all, of the provisions of HB148 also passed during the past legislative session. As outlined by Senator Scott McCoy in a previous post, HB174 was explained as a clean-up bill and contained some of the amendments offered (but rejected) during the HB148 debate. Knowing 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, the Senate Democrats voted for HB174. In fact, HB174 passed by two-thirds majorities in both bodies, rendering HB174 referendum-proof.

Speculation now abounds concerning the validity of HB174 to stand on its own to implement vouchers in Utah. In an effort to eliminate the confusion of these two voucher bills, Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich and House Minority Leader Ralph Becker sent a letter to Governor Huntsman last week imploring the governor to call a special session to “provide a way to clean up conflicting interpretations of whether vouchers should be implemented in the middle of a referendum called by the people.”

Click below to read the letter in its entirety. (No response from the governor as yet.)

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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.