Behind the scenes, a number of conservative GOP state legislators were heard to give large sighs of relief this past week after the Utah Supreme Court basically bailed out the Legislature on private school vouchers.

The high court said that however citizens vote on the main voucher bill, HB148, on Nov. 6, that's how Utah's proposed tax-subsidy system for private-school tuition will go.

Vote up HB148, and the state has a voucher system.

Vote down HB148, and the proposed voucher system dies.

Looking from the outside, the conservatives' strong support on vouchers may not make a lot of practical sense — it's much more philosophical than realistic.

Why can one say that?

Simple numbers.

More than 95 percent of Utah families send their children to public schools. Utah has one of the lowest private-school attendances in the nation.

There are many reasons for this:

Financial — Utahns tend to have larger families and lower average wages, so they can't afford to send their children to private schools.

Societal — Most Utahns are members of the LDS Church, which does not have its own parochial school system. Instead, public secondary schools provide free periods for students to attend LDS Church seminary classes, held in church-owned buildings just off of the junior high and high school campuses.

So I have found it odd that conservative legislators have battled so long and so hard for a private-school voucher program that has questionable benefits for most Utahns.

In part, the strong GOP support of vouchers, I believe, falls back on the long-time — and some may say irrational — hatred of the Utah Education Association.

The UEA, the state's largest teacher union, and the Parent-Teachers Association are two of the strongest opponents of vouchers.

The UEA has for years been one of the most effective political organizations in Utah. With hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in every legislative cycle to elect Democrats and moderate Republicans, the UEA is derided and feared by many legislative GOP conservatives.

Conservatives have actually passed laws aimed at harming the union's political fund raising.

The fervor by which some GOP lawmakers are defending vouchers these days can also be ascribed to two human traits — stubbornness and loyalty.

Few politicians serve with humility. And the herd mentality of powerful GOP lawmakers is simple — the Constitution says Americans will elect representatives to make decisions for the masses. And anytime someone tries to put a public vote — in this case a referendum — over the representatives' vote, depend on the representatives not liking it.

Secondly, GOP lawmakers are paying more attention to their base — conservative county and state Republican delegates — than to their constituencies in general. Survival is the key word here.

Because of gerrymandered redistricting, few GOP legislators fear losing their seats in a general election. Indeed, when most Republican incumbents fall, it is either in their party convention votes or in a primary election — in both cases where they are opposed by fellow Republicans.

And rarely is a conservative Republican legislator voted out by a challenge from the left. Most often, they are beaten by a challenger from the political right (which is really weird, because how do you even get to the right of some of these conservative legislators?).

Who knows how the referendum vote will go this November? But voucher proponents have the uphill climb. Polls have consistently shown a close split on vouchers — but voucher opponents come out on top nearly every time.

How do you convince Utah voter that they should approve tax money going to private schools, when the voter is already paying considerable personal income and property taxes to support public schools?

This voucher election Nov. 6 and next year's legislative races will prove interesting political battles — with Utah voters getting the chance to reconsider how Utah state government operates.


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