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Governor says he has no control over ads

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Thursday he had no control over the use of his public statements backing school vouchers in television commercials and other advertising paid for by a pro-voucher group.

Huntsman has said repeatedly he would not become involved in the referendum campaign beyond reiterating his longtime support for vouchers. The governor has stopped short of asking Utahns to join him in voting for the referendum.

Most recently, Huntsman appeared at a pro-voucher event at the Capitol called by legislative leaders. That appearance was featured in television commercials urging Utahns to vote for Referendum I in the Nov. 6 election.

"Once he says that in a press conference we don't need permission," said Leah Barker, spokesperson for Parents for Choice in Education. "It's in the public forum and anybody is entitled to use it."

Comments made at the Capitol event as well as past statements in support of allowing the state program to help parents pay private school tuition go forward have also appeared in newspaper ads as well as mailings from Parents for Choice in Education.

"I don't think there's much I can do about that," Huntsman told reporters at his monthly press conference on KUED Channel 7 when asked about turning up in pro-voucher advertisements.

"As a public person, you're out there and what you say is reported and filmed," the governor said, adding that he was not aware the Capitol event was being filmed by the pro-voucher group. "I'm on record supporting vouchers for years."

He said he was "not necessarily keeping it at arm's length. I'm just asking people as I always have to go out and get some more (information) on the issue and cast a vote. I've let people know where I am for the past four or five years."

Voucher critics aren't too concerned about the governor's involvement in the issue.

"We appreciate what he has done in the past in saying that doesn't want to be a 'poster boy,"' said Lisa Johnson, spokeswoman for Utahns for Public Schools, the group formed to oppose vouchers.

"Even at that press conference, he said he thinks voters should study the voucher issue and whatever makes sense to them is the right answer for them," Johnson said. "We feel that's what voters should do and we do hope that if the governor is going to be involved in the campaign moving forward that he will insist on a campaign of integrity and honesty and transparency that really should typify the debate."

Thursday, the governor called for a "respectful" debate on the controversial issue as the election nears. Relationships need to be maintained, Huntsman said, to tackle the problems facing public schools.

"Vouchers may be part of it if they're successful," he said. His top priority for improving education in Utah is raising teacher compensation, as well as improving assessments of student progress.

So far, the governor said, the debate has not become too heated — yet.

"But I suspect in the last little while, the heat will increase. And as it does, which only inevitable in any kind of campaign, (I ask) that people remain respectful. There are legitimate issues on both sides of this."


E-mail: lisa@desnews.com; terickson@desnews.com