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Tuition tax credit bill open to public scrutiny

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A Utah County lawmaker wants to hear from the public on a bill he's drafting to give residents income tax credits for private school tuition.

Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, this week opened a bill file for tuition tax credits. He plans to keep the file open, instead of shielded from public purview as often is done with touchy legislation, to start a public dialogue.

"All the various parties who are interested can come to me and I can go to them and we can see what to put in it," Ferrin said Thursday. He also wants to meet with tuition tax credit opponents — which include public education groups from the Utah School Boards Association to the Utah Education Association — to "see if there is any common ground.

"I think there might be," he said.

But public education officials are skeptical.

"We think (tuition tax credits are) bad public policy, bad fiscal policy, and again, I would simply quote (Lt. Gov.) Olene Walker, saying, until we get the public schools adequately financed, it's not an area (in which) we should be putting a lot of our legislative efforts," said Ralph Haws, legislative co-chairman for the Utah School Boards Association.

"Of course, we would be willing to sit down and talk … (but) in all the discussion we've had for three years, there hasn't been much of a compromise put on the table by any of the proponents."

Ferrin's bill marks the fourth consecutive year tax credits for private school tuition will come before the Utah Legislature.

Last year, the concept sailed through the Senate as part of an education reform package and $90 million tax increase.

The House, however, removed the credits and tax increase from SB154 before passing it.

But political watchers say having the House initiate the bill will force the body to vote on the matter for the first time in three years.

Also, House GOP leaders generally support tuition tax credits. And House Majority Whip Jeff Alexander had been looking into carrying the bill this year.

Ferrin said he hoped to talk with Alexander, R-Provo, and create a united front on the bill.

Ferrin had few specifics on the legislation. But he did say he was looking at making the credit less than the value of the weighted pupil unit — the state's per-student funding formula — which is now at $2,150. That way, he said, those taking the tax credit would leave behind money to boost the WPU — a pet project of public education officials.

Ferrin said he does not plan to target the credit toward lower-income residents. He would allow a tax credit for donations to a private school scholarship fund.

Proponents believe the measure would increase per-student spending, ease future public school crowding as the state prepares for a projected 100,000 new students by 2010 and improve schools via competition.

"We believe providing parents a choice is going to improve education for those who take advantage of it and those who don't," said Royce Van Tassell, executive director of Education Excellence Utah.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com