Legislators question timing of U voucher report

By By Rochelle McConkie

By Rochelle McConkie

The timing of a recent U report on school vouchers irritated some Utah lawmakers who said the release left the impression of being a political move to skew voters in the upcoming election.

House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, told KUTV Channel 2 that because of the report, “the University is going to create hard feelings with certain members of the Legislature.”

The U Center for Public Policy and Administration put out the report less than two weeks before election day, when Utah voters will decide whether to put Referendum 1, Utah’s school voucher law, into action.

Referendum 1 would provide scholarships to families that want to send their children to private schools. The vouchers would range from $500 to $3,000 based on family income and size. Because of conflicting laws on the issue, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the program will only be established if a majority of Utahns vote in favor of the voucher plan.

Center Director David Patton said the report was meant to inform voters about the voucher bill in an unbiased way and to supplement and add clarification to the voter information packet. It was released in their monthly newsletter and is available on the center’s website. The report explained the financial impact of the voucher program and arguments for and against the law.

“The timing was political,” Patton said. “The purpose is to inform people about the facts. If we put it out after the elections, it would lose its purpose.”

Curtis reportedly called U Vice President for Government Relations Kim Wirthlin to ask why the report was released at this time. Curtis’ Chief of Staff, Chris Bleak, said the speaker would not comment further on the matter. Wirthlin was not available for comment.

The U relies on the Utah State Legislature for a large portion of its annual funding.

Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said Curtis’ call to Wirthlin was appropriate and he said that after talking to Wirthlin, she shared the same concern that releasing the report at this time gave the perception of being politically motivated.

“Why in the world would they do that at the 11th hour when vouchers have been in the public arena for two years…and debated for more than 10 years,” Bramble said.

Bramble said he did not object to anything that was in the report, saying it was neutral and professionally done, but the timing of the release created questions about the U’s role in political advocacy.

“Academic freedom should be respected, but should the U weigh in on this highly emotional political contest?” Bramble questioned.

He said the first time he heard about the report was in a voucher debate in Provo last Tuesday when an anti-voucher debater used the report for support.

Both Curtis and Bramble voted for a bill to create the voucher program when it was before the Legislature last spring.

Janice Houston, senior policy analyst for the CPPA and author of the report, said legislators were aware it was coming.

“We floated it past several people in the legislature, including the analyst and lawmakers,” Houston said. “They knew what our plans were with it.”

Houston said she’s “befuddled” as to why lawmakers were upset about the report. Bramble said there is a difference in being upset and being concerned.

He said Curtis had no intention to block the release of the report and that this incident will not likely have a negative impact on the U’s relationship with the Legislature.

“I don’t see anyone being swayed by this,” Bramble said.

Patton said the report will help voters in the decision-making process.

“The report itself shows this is a decision that has to be made on one’s values — the way you look at it influences how you interpret the facts,” Patton said. “It helps neither and both sides.”

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