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Becker, Buhler quiet on vouchers

But both S.L. candidates say they oppose them

Even though both Salt Lake City mayoral finalists — Ralph Becker and Dave Buhler — say public education is very important to them, and both say they'll work hard to make education better in the city, neither man is talking much about private school vouchers, nor addressing in their paid ads the controversial ballot measure.

Becker, the current Democratic House minority leader, and Buhler, who was a GOP state senator from 1995 to 1999, stand firmly against vouchers, they told the Deseret Morning News.

But while both men's Web sites go on at some length about improving public education, the word "vouchers" doesn't appear in either man's education issue papers.

Becker said he has opposed vouchers year after year in the Legislature — "I've always spoken against it."

He voted against the main voucher bill, HB148, in the 2007 session, as did every other Democratic lawmaker. Becker worked last spring gathering signatures on the anti-voucher referendum drive. A campaign aide overseeing the candidate's Web site said not putting Becker's anti-voucher stand under his education section "was purely an oversight," considering Becker did issue an anti-voucher press release last spring, which can be found elsewhere on the Web site.

"We did something early on (on vouchers)," said Becker. Maybe the issue "has gotten lost" in the campaign, said Becker. "I don't know what happened. I've not put (vouchers) in any mailer or any (electronic) ad. But every time it has come up" in debates or other campaign functions "I've spoken in opposition to it — and consistently in the Legislature."

No voucher bills were introduced during Buhler's four years in the Senate during the mid-1990s, the candidate said.

"But I'm not shy about saying I'm against them — have been for years," said Buhler, whose job is as an assistant commissioner of higher education for the state. "They make no sense for the state as a whole but especially no sense for Salt Lake City, where our public schools are losing students."

The Becker campaign says that while no pure voucher bills came before the Legislature during Buhler's four years, two bills with voucher aspects did — and Buhler voted in favor of both of them. In 1995 and 1996 Senate bills were introduced that provided a small amount of funds for troubled students to attend special private schools. "It was not vouchers," said Buhler, "and it cost like $30,000 a year and would have helped a few kids, so I voted for it."

In 1997 and 1998, a Senate bill would have created a program that allowed local school boards to start a parents' refundable tax credit for qualifying families who sent their kids to a private school.

"It was so far from the new voucher law (HB148) it is laughable," said Buhler. He said he supported the bill because it was "one tool" that a local board could adopt to help its district in cases of severe student overcrowding. "I didn't think any school board would use this program, but why not let them have that local option. And it cost $40,000 a year," said Buhler, compared to the tens of millions of dollars HB148 could cost over the next decade.

The new voucher law is broad-ranging and expensive over time, yet neither candidate mentions vouchers in their advertisements — leading one to wonder if they are just staying out of a bitter political fight that's not their bailiwick. Both deny that.

Buhler and Becker said there is just not enough time or space in an advertisement to talk about all the issues, so some fall by the wayside. But Web sites, of course, can be long and detailed. And both Buhler and Becker pride themselves on extensive position-taking on their sites. Yet vouchers aren't part of their education positions, either.

"I'm talking about things that I would do as mayor," Buhler said in defense of his voucher-free education plank. "And vouchers will be decided by all the voters before I become mayor" in January.

Still, as a Republican, Buhler more than Becker stands to lose some of his mayoral support by angering pro-voucher city voters — most of whom are actually Republicans, his political base.

Democrat Becker leads Republican Buhler in the latest Morning News/KSL-TV poll by 18 percentage points, according to pollster Dan Jones & Associates. So Buhler needs to broaden his base, not restrict it.

In separate surveys — one only of Salt Lake City registered voters, another statewide survey of registered voters — Jones found that Salt Lakers are more opposed to private school vouchers than are Utahns at large.

Statewide, 60 percent of Utahns said they oppose the new voucher law passed by the 2007 Legislature. Thirty-four percent of Utahns said they favor the new law, which would give between $500 and $3,000 in tuition payments to parents who send their kids to private schools. The exact amount of the payment depends on the parents' income and number of school-age children.

Inside Salt Lake City, Jones found that 66 percent of registered voters oppose vouchers, while 27 percent of voters favor the new law.

Some Republican legislators voted against vouchers. But most GOP lawmakers voted in favor of the main voucher bill, HB148, which was signed into law by GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

However, Jones found that only 39 percent of Utah Republicans statewide favor the new law, which will be on the Nov. 6 ballot. Fifty-four percent of Republicans oppose vouchers, Jones found. That's one reason that GOP legislative leaders have formed their own public issue committee and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to educate rank-and-file Republicans to favor vouchers.

Those GOP voucher numbers are about the same in the city — 39 percent of Salt Lake City Republicans favor vouchers, 51 percent oppose. The big difference, however, is that there are far fewer Republicans in Salt Lake City than there are across the whole state — which is overwhelmingly Republican in its voting.

Buhler already has by far most of the city GOP vote. Jones found that Buhler, an eight-year City Council member, has 60 percent Republican vote.

Politically speaking, Buhler wouldn't pick up much support if he came out in favor of vouchers, for his own Republican Party members are split on the issue.

But he has much to lose by favoring vouchers, considering that most city Democrats and political independents — whom Buhler really needs to win — oppose vouchers.

Jones found that 59 percent of political independents in the city oppose vouchers. Eighty-five percent of Salt Lake City Democrats oppose vouchers.

But Buhler said he has not avoided the voucher issue for any strategic reasons.

"Sure, I want everyone to vote for me, of course," said Buhler. "I just don't feel (vouchers) are a real issue in this (mayoral) race. When people ask my opinion (on vouchers), I give it to them."