- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A referendum effort to repeal Utah’s landmark voucher law has collected enough valid signatures to appear on the ballot, but it may not matter.

The referendum would repeal the Parent Choice in Education Act, also known as H.B. 148, which was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in March. State elections officials verified 124,218 signatures, more than enough to place the repeal on the ballot.

“It’s phenomenal, a record-breaking effort,” said Vik Arnold, chairman of the steering committee for Utahns for Public Schools, which collected the signatures.

Even if voters approve the referendum, however, it may not be enough to stop vouchers. It turns out the Legislature this year passed two voucher measures, H.B. 148 and H.B. 174, and the referendum effort applies only to H.B. 148.

The first voucher bill, H.B. 148, was approved in February by just one vote in the House. On the last day of the legislative session, lawmakers passed H.B. 174, which amended the original voucher bill by stipulating additional funding and background checks for teachers.

The governor signed both measures into law. Now, with H.B. 148 on hold pending the results of the election, voucher advocates say the second bill has the power to create the voucher program for the 2007-08 school year without the first.

H.B. 174 cannot be subject to a referendum because it passed with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

“It’s quite clear that 174 supersedes this referendum election,” said Elisa Peterson, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, which supports the voucher program.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff agreed in a March 27 opinion.

“The [second] bill can stand on its own to implement the program without being disabled somehow,” said Utah Assistant Attorney General William Evans.

Voucher opponents, led by the state teachers union, argue that there was no legislative intent to implement the second bill without the first.

“As the lieutenant governor said, there are two schools of thought about the validity of H.B. 174,” said Mr. Arnold, who also serves as director of government affairs for the Utah Education Association. “While we understand that pro-voucher advocates are pushing to have 174 implemented, there are certainly others who believe that 174, which was passed with the intention of amending 148, was never meant to stand on its own and cannot stand on its own.”

Implementing H.B. 174 would deny voters the chance to weigh in on the voucher law, he said, although voucher advocates disputed that, noting that the law was approved by democratically elected legislators.

The next move belongs to the Utah State Board of Education, which meets tomorrow to decide whether to delay vouchers while awaiting the outcome of the referendum, or enact the voucher law with the language contained in H.B. 174.

Mark Peterson, spokesman for the state Office of Education, said the board was on track to approve a final voucher rule this week before the signatures were verified.

“Now that we have 148 on the ballot, either we drop the 148 language and rewrite the rule, or just suspend everything until the vote happens,” Mr. Peterson said.

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