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Bob Bernick Jr.: Pro-voucher movement still has some work to do

Utah is seeing a new type of campaign going on now — state GOP legislative leaders are raising money and traveling the state trying to "educate" citizens about private school vouchers.

They formed their own political issues committee, got a $200,000 check from one big donor and have promises from local businesses for another $100,000.

And they are holding dozens of meetings across the state — sending out thousands of mailings and/or targeted telephone calls to try to get attendance.

"We had 120 people in St. George this week but only 25 or so in Park City," says Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who thought up and has organized the PIC, named the Informed Voter Project.

Hughes says he's trying to get as many people as possible to the meetings, and often those opposed to vouchers will show up as well. They are welcome, he says.

By debating private school vouchers, and pointing out what Hughes says are the true merits of the plan, citizens can be persuaded to support the Nov. 6 ballot issue.

"We're not just trying to get the 'amen' crowd — those already for vouchers," Hughes says.

He admits that there is no central place where the meeting schedule can be found — a complaint by some voucher opponents who say the PIC wants them out of the meetings.

"We're working from the seat of our pants here," setting meeting dates not much more than a week out, trying to set the meeting schedules so local GOP legislators who pushed the voucher bill through the 2007 Legislature can be present. The PIC has taken out ads in local newspapers announcing meetings. "We're not trying to hide," said Hughes.

While GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who ran in 2004 on a pro-voucher platform and signed HB148 into law this year, declines to participate in any pro-voucher actions, Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert attended the Park City meeting this past week and spoke in favor of the issue, which voters will decide come Nov. 6.

A recent Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates found that 60 percent of registered Utah voters oppose vouchers. Only 34 percent said if the election were today they would vote for them.

So clearly, the pro-voucher movement has some work to do.

The big pro-voucher money is coming through another PIC — one organized for Parents for Choice in Education, a pro-voucher group not associated with GOP legislative leaders that has been around Utah for several years. It is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV and other kinds of advertising.

And one may wonder why Hughes and other elected members of House and Senate GOP leadership would put forth such an effort to attract 20 or 30 people to a meeting?

I don't doubt Hughes' stated purpose: to educate Utahns about vouchers in a close, personal setting where concerns about the new program can be answered.

But I also see another politically worthy side to the PIC — shore up the hard-core GOP base of legislators who may well see one of their most far-reaching education reform efforts fail before voters.

Jones' survey shows that even 54 percent of those who say they are Republicans oppose vouchers. Only 39 percent of Republicans support them.

Worse for GOP legislators, Jones found that 51 percent of those who said they "strongly vote Republican" in elections oppose vouchers. Forty percent of "strong Republicans" support vouchers.

And even though the state Republican Party platform hints at supporting vouchers, it's not good political news for incumbent legislators — who by and large are not well-known among their own party members — to pass a controversial law not supported by a majority of their own party.

So, do you just sit by and let the voucher election move past you?

Or do you do something that most political observers say has never been done in Utah before: You organize your own PIC, raise money and go out and fight for the bill you passed, telling anyone who will listen why you did so?

"Obviously, we want our constituents to concur with what we did," says Hughes, who has shown himself over the years to be an astute political operative. All 75 members of the Utah House, and half of the 29-member Senate are up for election next year.

"But we also want to show people that we made this decision" — to start what some call the most broad-ranging private school voucher program in the nation — "in a thoughtful, considered way. That we were not controlled by outside interests" but rather by what the majority legislative Republicans believe is in the best interest of all Utahns, says Hughes.

Democrats and the few GOP legislators who voted against HB148 may hoot at those arguments. But it's clear the majority of Republicans in the Utah Legislature are not going quietly into the good night on the voucher issue.


Deseret Morning News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com