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School tax proposals doomed

Income levy boost, tuition credit fail to get House backing

Tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools, one of the major issues of the 2003 Legislature, appears to be on its death bed.

Sunday, Rep. Steve Urquhart, the House sponsor of the education omnibus bill, said Monday he didn't have 38 votes, a House majority, for tuition credits or for a tax increase or fee hike to fund the bill.

So, as GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt requested last week, tuition tax credits and the tax hike will be deleted from SB154, so its education reform measures can go forward.

"Clearly, we did not have 38 votes," Urquhart, R-St. George, said.

SB154, sponsored by Sen. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch, aims to get schools back to basics and change the way students rack up credits to graduate. The bill would also change the way public education is governed. It would let businesses have a say in who runs for the State Board of Education and make it easier for professionals to become teachers.

The bill includes provisions for tuition tax credits and a $90 million general income tax increase.

The bill, whose elements were recommended by the governor's Employer's Education Coalition, squeaked by the Senate last week in a 15-14 vote.

But in the House, Urquhart has had a rough go at rallying support for either a tax increase or a tuition tax credit, which some fear will take money away from public schools.

Friday, he worked on a compromise bill.

Instead of a $90 million general income tax increase, House Republicans were looking at $10 fee increases in both vehicle title and registration fees to raise $27 million for the first year of the bill's reforms.

But the House reception was cool at best, and the fee increases won't run at all this session.

"We won't see those (vehicle) fee increases; we don't need them now," House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, said.

Urquhart also worked on language to let only low- and middle-income kids benefit from an income tax credit for private school tuition.

"We got close to 38 votes when we talked about (that)," he said, but "there was not a big enough pool of switchers (from public to private schools) to make it work."

Tuition tax credit advocates say if mounds of students switch to private schools, public schools will actually save money because they would have fewer kids to educate.

Pulling the measure from the bill received mixed response Monday.

"I really think SB154 had a lot of good points in it," said Ellen Wallace, president of the Utah School Boards Association. "We're adamantly opposed to tuition tax credits. We're happy they can be debated separately."

Education Excellence Utah will continue to fight to have tuition tax credits debated on its own in the House, director Elisa Clements said.

So will Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who sponsored a bill to allow tuition tax credits for parents and donors to private school scholarship organizations. His bill was folded into SB154 after passing the Senate last month.

"It's going to be a battle," Buttars said. "The votes are there. Whether there's the backbone to cast them or not, I don't know."

Hatch looked upon the changes as "a realist" might.

"We're not sure we can get it out with tuition tax credits in it," he said. "We think there's enough good measures in the reform package we'll run it anyway."

He has said he would not run the bill without the funding. But since tuition tax credits are out of it, he's OK with the income tax increase being pulled out. Besides, he believes $5 million will be found by session's end to help make the reforms possible.

Urquhart, however, was not looking to put such money in.

"But in the last three days, things happen pretty fast and furious," he said. The big winner at this point is Leavitt.

Leavitt has said he would not support tuition tax credits until the state adequately funds public schools, which receive the lowest per-pupil spending in the country.

"He's very happy," Leavitt spokeswoman Natalie Gochnour said. "He's asked from day one we keep these things separate . . . and let reform be debated for its merits, let tuition tax credits be debated for its merits."

House Republicans had been poised to paint Leavitt into a political corner. They had planned to pass the title and registration fee increases funding source in a separate bill. So, if tuition tax credits were in SB154, and if Leavitt vetoed the whole measure, then he would be raising the title and registration fees for no reason.

SB154 will go back to the original Hatch version. But it will include enhancements for charter schools — something Leavitt also has touted.

"We want to encourage the formation of those (speciality, public education) schools," which allow for choice in education, much like tax credits did, Urquhart said.

Still, tuition tax credits may rise again before the gavel falls on the 2003 Legislature Wednesday night.

Though House support is in question, Urquhart says "hope springs eternal," and that he might run Buttars' original bill.

"Tuition tax credits are coming," Urquhart said, even if not this year. "It's a great idea: Provide choice to parents while at the same time shoring up public education. But it is an education process (for legislators and the public). And that process continues."