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Tuition tax credit costly?

Proponents want memo on negative impact squelched

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PROVO — Proponents of a plan to give a tax break to parents whose children attend private school are attempting to squelch a memo from a legislative fiscal analyst that hypothetically outlinesthe financial impact such a tax credit might have on Utah's public education system.

"My biggest concern is misinformation gets out and people make up their minds before ever seeing a bill," said Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who plans to introduce legislation supporting tuition tax credits during the 2002 Legislature.

Buttars and several other Republican lawmakers worked last week to invalidate the Dec. 29 memo written by analyst assistant Ben Leishman. The memo was a response to a request for information about tuition tax credits from Ann Woolley, a member of Provo's Board of Education.

Woolley asked for "a perspective from an unbiased expert" after receiving a letter from a Provo parent that claimed more money would be available to spend per student in public schools if tax credits were available for Utah parents.

Among other topics in the document — which was quickly circulated to Utah's 40 school districts and organizations that vow to fight tax-credit proposals — Leishman wrote that the idea of tuition tax credits raised many questions. And he also cautioned in the memo that "only general observations" could be made without specific language from proposed legislation.

"A tax credit would reduce the amount of income tax in the Uniform School Fund and thus the amount available for allocation to districts," says the three-page memo. "Depending on how the statute is written, equity may become an issue, namely, if tax credit is based on reimbursement, the paying of income tax would be a condition of receiving the tax credit."

John E. Massey, Utah's chief legislative analyst, sent a statement Monday to all Utah school bosses saying that his office has not taken any position on tuition tax credits, a subject expected to be a fiercely debated issue during this year's legislative session.

A Deseret News-KSL poll shows public support for tuition tax credits isn't overwhelming. Forty percent of the 405 Utah residents surveyed by Dan Jones & Associates in December say they definitely or probably favor the idea of tuition tax credits. But 56 percent probably or definitely oppose it. Three percent didn't know. The survey had a 5 percent error margin.

Massey told Provo's board Tuesday that Leishman "was trying to be helpful" when he responded to Woolley.

But without specific language from a bill, the memo should be considered "incomplete" and "should not be used for any conclusions, pro or con, or for quantifications of any impacts related to tuition tax credits," Massey wrote.

Provo board member Mossi White said Leishman's memo didn't advocate or denounce tuition tax credits. "As I read this letter, I did not think he was taking a position," White said.

But Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said the memo very easily could be seen as a statement against tax credits.

"I propose that if you were to take 100 people off the street and ask them to read the memo and then ask them if it was for or against tuition tax credits. . . . I'd wager a soda pop that they'd say it was against tuition tax credits," Bramble said.

Woolley's request for input was prompted after Provo's board last month balked at supporting a lobby effort by Utah's State School Board against tuition tax credits. The maverick board on Tuesday supported two resolutions — but neither takes a strong stance against tuition tax credits.

Provo's short resolutions, however, caution legislators not to harm funding for public education as they investigate school-reform measures. Most school boards in Utah have approved anti-tuition tax credit resolutions without much debate.

"I will take a stand opposing anything that hurts public education," White said. "As a board of education we should be defenders of public education."


E-mail: jeffh@desnews.com