Facebook Twitter

Bob Bernick Jr.: Guv walks crooked line on vouchers

SHARE Bob Bernick Jr.: Guv walks crooked line on vouchers

Re-elections always bring out the paranoia in politicians — even those who have little to fear from voters.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is up for re-election next year. He's already said he won't seek a third term, and assuming he wins and then steps out of public life, 2008 would be his last election.

But the popular governor — he constantly gets approval ratings in the 80 percentiles — seems stuck on the controversial issue of private school vouchers.

As he told Deseret Morning News education writer Tiffany Erickson this week, he didn't lead the fight for the voucher law, and he's not going to lead the fight against vouchers, should citizens reject the idea in a public referendum.

Indeed, Huntsman has walked a crooked road on vouchers.

He ran in 2004 on a platform that included tax credit vouchers for parents who send their kids to private schools. That put him on the correct side of conservative GOP delegates and primary voters who like vouchers.

But Huntsman didn't push the vouchers issue once he was in office.

He offered no model legislation. And when Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Utah House voted down vouchers in 2005 and 2006, Huntsman didn't chastise or criticize them.

He always said if the Legislature passed a vouchers bill, he'd take a look at it before deciding whether to veto it or sign it.

By one vote in the House, a main vouchers bill passed in 2007. And Huntsman did sign it.

But when a well-organized citizen opposition to the new bill sprung up, Huntsman didn't openly oppose that, either.

Instead, he said should citizens get a chance to vote on the bill, and should they vote it down, then the "people's voice" should be heard and followed — and there should be no voucher law.

But he said this week that he would not lead any fight attempting to end vouchers, either, should voters turn it down at the polls.

The governor seems to be squarely straddling two rails on the issue, trying very hard not to touch the deadly political third rail of vouchers.

Huntsman says — with some very hopeful thinking — that Utah courts may well have decided the legal issues over vouchers before Feb. 5 — an election date the governor favors for the voucher vote. However, that would require pretty quick action by the courts.

As you may recall, much of the hassle with this voucher issue is the fact that lawmakers passed two voucher bills. The first, main voucher bill, passed by one vote in the House, a handful in the Senate.

But several weeks later, lawmakers passed what has been called a "cleanup and funding" bill on vouchers. That bill passed by two-thirds in the House and Senate — mainly because some Democrats and moderate Republicans, who had voted against the main voucher bill, voted for the cleanup bill because it gave more funding for vouchers and made the first bill better.

Unfortunately for voucher opponents, the second bill carried much of the same voucher-enacting language as the first bill. And Utah law says that any bill that passes by two-thirds or more can't be the subject of a referendum repeal. Opponents said they didn't realize that. So Utahns can only vote to repeal the first bill.

There's the sticky political reality that voters could turn down the main voucher bill, but the second bill would be in place and vouchers would go forward against citizens' wishes.

Should that happen, Huntsman could lead a fight to repeal the second bill — and thus follow the people's will that he says should reflect the referendum.

But the governor says he won't do that — it will be up to legislators to fix the mess they created, unless they are bailed out by the courts.

Assuming some Republican runs against Huntsman next year, the governor will have to appear before conservative GOP delegates in convention and perhaps face an opponent in a GOP primary — facing those same Republicans who generally favor vouchers, as a number of Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV polls show.

Like I said, re-elections can make even popular politicians squeamish.

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