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House debate on voucher bill delayed due to absentees

School Boards Association releases 2 legal opinions

SHARE House debate on voucher bill delayed due to absentees

Pivotal House debate on a bill giving parents vouchers for private school tuition was delayed Wednesday night because some House members had left the room at a time when every vote would count, the sponsor said.

Meanwhile, the Utah School Boards Association released two legal opinions, one from former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Zimmerman, saying HB184 would be unconstitutional — an allegation disputed by an attorney hired by voucher lobbyists Parents for Choice in Education.

And on another front, HB340, a voucher bill abandoned last week by sponsoring Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace, wound up on today's House Education Standing Committee lineup. Dee, however, plans to be a no-show.

"I abandoned the bill," he said, adding that the other bill, HB184, "picked up my bill."

Committee chairwoman Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said she wanted to give bills assigned to the committee a hearing and that the bill was on the agenda before Dee said anything to her. She said the committee could take action on the bill despite Dee's absence but would not offer predictions.

HB184, sponsored by Rep. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, would give a tuition voucher worth $500 to $3,500, depending on income, to parents of students switching from public to private schools or low-income students currently in private schools.

The bill would cost $13.3 million in general funds, not dedicated school funds, to pay for the vouchers in the first year. School districts could keep some of voucher students' education dollars, and the rest of those students' would-be state education funding would go into a mitigation fund to help those financially hurt in the program.

Still, public education officials don't like the bill. Attorneys secured by the Utah School Boards Association say the bill violates church-state separation.

"As is well-known, there was a vigorous opposition to Utah achieving statehood because of the polygamy issue and the fact that the government was perceived to be a theocracy," wrote attorney Harold G. Christensen of the firm Snow, Christensen & Martineau. "This led to a particular focus on separation of church and state in the Utah Constitution . . . (whose sections aim) to forbid the public aid to church schools, which House Bill 184 would allow."

"I think it's highly likely the language is tight enough in Article X to hold this (bill) unconstitutional," Zimmerman, who formed an opinion with Troy L. Booher and Peter H. Donaldson of the Snell & Wimmer law firm, said at the association's press conference.

But the arguments ring hollow to attorney Maxwell A. Miller, who weighed in on the idea for Parents for Choice in Education.

"I believe Mr. Zimmerman's opinion mischaracterizes the bill," Miller said. "If money is given to parents . . . on where to go to school, that is sufficient to the federal Constitution" under case law, Miller said. "It is funding of parental choice."

The association distributed its attorneys' opinions to the Senate and House, which was in line to debate the bill late Wednesday. But the House agreed to Adams' request to hold off.

"There were a lot of people who were off the floor and in a bill like this, it's important to have as many people as possible," Adams said afterward. "This is a bill where one vote will make all the difference."

Indeed, the House has stalled the measure in four of the past five years.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com