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Tuition credits likely to fail

Tax measure is lacking support in Utah House

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A long-hyped tuition-tax-credit bill is late coming out of the gates, and an informal House poll casts doubt on the success of its run.

House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, on Wednesday said the in-the-works bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, "is eight to 10 votes short" of the 38 needed to pass in the House. That's assuming all 24 House Democrats, who have denounced the concept, vote against it.

"The question is if the votes don't change over here, do the senators even want to take a vote" on such a controversial measure, Garn said.

But Buttars is confident of Senate support and believes House members will climb aboard once they see the legislation.

"I know where those (missing House) votes are, and I'm watching that carefully. There are a large number that say, 'Gee, we want to see the bill first,' " he said.

Time and politics will tell.

All 75 House members and half of the 29 senators are up for re-election this fall. And the politics of tuition tax credits is mixed.

Supporters say offering parents a $2,100 tax credit, which Buttars has said the bill would do, for private school tuition would relieve overcrowding in public schools and provide greater per-pupil spending educational opportunities for less wealthy families.

Opponents say the opposite and complain the measure wouldn't hold private schools accountable for public money or require private schools to take special-education students.

Polls commissioned by the Deseret News indicate less than 50 percent public support on the issue; a Utah School Boards Association poll puts support in the 38 percent range.

Tax-credit supporters pooh-pooh such polls as biased. A year-old Wirthlin Worldwide poll showed the more people know about the measure's perks, the more they support it.

Considering the charged political climate surrounding the issue during an election year, some believe legislators want to avoid major policy changes that might rock the electoral boat.

But hunkering down could haunt legislators. The state GOP platform backs parental choice in education, and two resolutions call for tuition-tax-credit legislation, notes a letter to delegates penned by Weber County and state delegate David Spackman.

"Especially in the closed primary this year, those Republicans who vote against parental choice in education, against the party platform, against positive reform of our education system and ignore delegates' resolutions can and should be held accountable," he wrote.

Spackman did not return two e-mail requests for comment this week.

But House Speaker Marty Stephens says Spackman, who lives in the Farr West Republican's district, cannot expect GOP lawmakers to align on everything.

"I personally don't support this type of negative campaign tactic," Stephens said.

Spackman's campaign seems to have sputtered. Senate Majority Leader Steve Poulton early this week had received just three or four postcards from delegates urging support of tax credits; Stephens had received two. Spackman suggested delegates show support for his position via the postcards.

Other tactics, however, are in the works.

A petition backing tuition tax credits is posted online by Parents for Choice in Education. It has garnered fewer than 100 signatures, "but we're just getting started," group community liaison Hugh Matheson said. "I'm getting five to 10 (signatures) every day, and we've only shown it to a few private school groups."

Tax-credit advocates also recently flew in Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman to stump for the cause at a recent education reform conference.

Tax-credit opponents have launched counter strikes.

The Utah Public Education Coalition has passed out a videotape urging viewers to ask lawmakers to oppose the concept and held neighborhood discussions on the topic.

"We say it makes the rich richer and the poor poorer," said Winston Gleave, executive director of the Utah School Boards Association. "I believe they're using voodoo economics when they say it will save the school districts money."

The Utah Education Association purchased radio ads spotlighting what the teachers union believes are the concept's faults. UEA leaders this week agreed to edit out a reference to Pinocchio this week after the reference to dishonest lawmakers upset Stephens and Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem.

In the eye of the political storm, meanwhile, is Buttars.

The legislative newcomer has been drafting the tuition-tax-credit bill for six weeks but keeps sending it back to staff for changes. The bill should debut by Tuesday, the day it's scheduled for a two-hour public hearing in the Senate Education Standing Committee, he said.

As Buttars sees it, the only thing standing in the bill's way is time. And if time runs out this year, there's always the next.

"This issue is here and going to become more pressing until it comes to fruition," Buttars said. "Educational choice and market forces are what's going to allow for educational excellence."

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com ; bbjr@desnews.com