Utah’s controversial coupon proposal – due for final approval by lawmakers this week – is likely to be passed by a large enough majority to make it impossible for voters to reverse it.
And any governor’s veto would likely be overturned.
Protection of the bill stems from the functioning of the state’s Republican-majority legislature.
If a bill passes with a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate, state voters cannot initiate a recall action. This long-standing bloc was introduced in Utah by an 1899 constitutional amendment and ratified a year later.
The measure could still be opposed by Gov. Spencer Cox – which is unlikely after he announced his support for it this week, despite his concerns about a similar bill last year. Even if he were not on board, the same two-thirds majority in both legislatures could then vote to override his veto; When most GOP lawmakers vote for something, it easily reaches that margin.
That means HB215, which was sped up in this session, looks undeniable in contrast to the coupon law passed in Utah in 2007.
At the time, Republican lawmakers lobbied for the nation’s most comprehensive education voucher. The measure passed despite strong opposition from parents, teachers and supporters.
These groups then rallied to put a referendum on the ballot to repeal the measure, and they won. More than 62% of Utah voters supported the repeal effort.
However, this year’s bill, dubbed Utah Fits All Scholarship, passed the House last week by a two-thirds majority, 54 votes to 20. And on Wednesday, it posted a significant 28-8 record in the Utah Senate on the first ballot.
The Senate votes on bills twice, but if that initial margin is met again on the second vote, it meets the two-thirds requirement. That will probably come on Thursday.
HB215 is establishing a $42 million taxpayer-funded program to provide scholarships for students to attend private schools or homeschool. It was formulated as an attempt to give families more choices in their education.
Senators debated the bill for more than an hour Wednesday, with several Democrats proposing changes and replacements to make the voucher program more accountable to taxpayers by requiring student testing, or to divert the vouchers from the pinned pay and benefit increase of $6,000 for teachers to separate. But none of their proposals were accepted.
Had that been the case, it could have slowed the bill’s progress and required another vote in the House of Representatives to approve the changes.
Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, who is the Senate sponsor of HB215, opposed the changes, saying, “This legislation has been thoroughly negotiated and compromised.”
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, disagreed.
“It’s a process. We should work towards common ground. But we don’t negotiate,” she said. “We’re trying to plug that bill.”
She noted that teachers and education stakeholders across the state — including the Utah State Board of Education, the Utah Education Association and the Utah PTA — have all voiced objections to the measure. Teachers and students at Salt Lake City’s three high schools held strikes as senators debated Wednesday.
They carried signs that read “Public Funds for Public Schools” and “The Legislature Failed Our Children First.”
“There is no education group that supports this bill,” Riebe said. “They made some suggestions, but these have not been considered. That’s frustrating.”
Riebe, who works in public education in the Granite School District, also pointed out that the state’s two existing voucher programs are not fully utilized every year. She was joined in opposition by the six Senate Democrats, along with two Republicans, Sens. Derrin Owens and David Hinkins, both of whom represent more rural areas of Utah and fear there are no private schools for students there.
Owens, who has worked as a public educator, urged Cullimore, who had said when the bill was introduced that it was “in no way an indictment of the public education system.”
“Well, it feels like an indictment,” Owens said, noting “all the bills that have choked up over the years” for educators.
But Cullimore insisted the bill could be adjusted later as it is implemented and potential issues emerge.
“No bill is permanent,” he said. “I think there will be optimizations.”
However, any future changes would require a vote by the legislature in either a special session or the next regular session in a year.
Even on the fast-paced bill, if passed this week, Cox will have 10 days to sign or veto it. If he signs it, the legislature has to fund it. That means even if the budget isn’t set, they have to allocate the money no matter what.
This rule applies to all bills passed during the first 35 days of the session.
—Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke and correspondent Bryan Schott contributed to this report.