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Controversial plan for tuition tax credits dies again

Sen. Chris Buttars has pursued tuition tax credits the way a baseball slugger in a slump yearns for a game-winning hit.

Even at the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, empty bases and a 3-0 score, there he was Wednesday, bat in hand, kicking the dirt, awaiting a chance to keep the measure in play.

"It's not over yet," the West Jordan Republican said on the last day, indicating a last-ditch effort to give SB34 a House vote.

In the end, though, the House wouldn't give the controversial proposal to give tax credits for private school tuition a hearing, and for the second straight year Buttars has struck out — against what he calls the government's education monopoly.

But the game's not over for Buttars.

"I'll be back again, strong," he said. "I'm not going to let something go that's as right as this."

This was the first time in three years tuition tax credits cleared more than a single committee vote. And for a time, it appeared this would be its winning year.

So what went wrong?

People woke up, public education officials say.

People learned tuition tax credits would take revenue away from income tax-reliant public schools, provide no accountability for public dollars and put public schools at a disadvantage to compete with regulation-free private schools.

"The Education Coalition (of parents, teachers and school boards) went to the communities, the parents — the grass roots — and tried to explain to them exactly what would happen and exactly why it wasn't good policy," said Ralph Haws, legislative co-chairman for Utah School Boards Association.

"I believe the community worked with the legislators, especially the moderate Republicans, and asked them, 'Please don't do this. This isn't what we ought to be doing to public education.' "

But Buttars and backers say politics stymied the parents' shot at financial power to choose the best education for their children.

"We think we had the votes in the House until the governor's veto threats and demagoguery of going around the issue and saying he was going to do one thing or another," said Elisa Clements, director of Education Excellence Utah. "I think especially in the House . . . a lot of freshmen representatives were intimidated by what the governor was doing. When it came down to it, they shied away from supporting it."

SB34 sought to give up to a $2,132 income tax credit to families switching from public to private schools and to low-income families now in private schools. It also would give a dollar-for-dollar credit for private school scholarship fund donations, which must be spent in a year or go back to the public schools.

Legislative fiscal analysts calculated high numbers of students would take the credit and leave public schools, therefore saving the state money. But just in case, the bill included $1 million for public schools financially hurt by losing too many students.

SB34 passed the Senate with 20 of 29 votes.

Then, it was rolled into a larger education reform bill that included a $97 million tax increase to complete plans forwarded by the governor's Employers Education Coalition.

Senators thought the bill was veto-proof. It gave schools money and reforms the governor wanted, along with tuition tax credits conservatives wanted.

But Gov. Mike Leavitt wouldn't bite. He announced he would veto SB154 if it contained an income tax increase.

Things fell apart from there.

While it appeared the House was haggling over the bill's funding source, the real hang-up was members' disdain for a tuition tax credits debate.

House-sponsoring Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, tinkered with targeting the credit at low- to middle-income students. But Monday, he pulled SB34 out of SB154, citing a lack of support.

And Tuesday, he announced he couldn't secure the 38 votes House Speaker Marty Stephens required for SB34 to be debated, and he let tuition tax credits die on the vine.

"We were very, very close, if not there, when we were moving it toward just low-income families," Urquhart said. "So if we find the right variables, we can pass it."

But Buttars swears the votes would have surfaced in debate.

"We had 34 or 35 hard votes, and 12 were undecided. I believe we would have turned around at least three to four votes and had it passed," he said. "What a bummer."

Meanwhile, a House resolution, which called for a public vote on tuition tax credits, drowned in the Senate Rules swamp.

The issue is far from dead. But it will encounter more difficulty in 2004.

"We remain committed to getting tuition tax credits passed," Clements said. "And if not next year, the year after, when we have a new governor and it's not an election year, which will probably be a challenge next year."

Indeed, some senators already are envisioning difficulty come election season because of the vote the House refused to reciprocate.

"I think in some cases, this will force a primary for some who don't deserve to be attacked on the vote for this bill," said Senate Majority Whip John Valentine, R-Orem.