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Business leaders sending pro-school vouchers letters to employees

Published October 24, 2007 12:58 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In Utah's epic school voucher battle, the workplace has become the newest front line.

A group of prominent Utah business leaders is now campaigning for vouchers by sending pro-voucher letters to employees, a move some experts say could leave employees feeling unnecessarily pressured.

Business Leaders for Referendum 1 has been sending e-mails to employers urging them to tell their employees that an influx of 160,000 new students to Utah schools over the next 10 years will lead to overcrowded classes and large tax increases if vouchers don't pass Nov. 6. The e-mail to employers includes a draft of a letter to give to employees.

"As your employer, it is not my intent to tell you how you should vote," according to the letter. "However; as I listen to the debate being waged on the airwaves, I am deeply concerned that one of the most important considerations is not being discussed."

Twelve business leaders signed their names to the letter, including Questar Chief Executive Keith Rattie, Merit Medical CEO Fred Lampropoulos, Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne and the heads of many state business associations. Other business leaders who signed the letter say they're simply educating employees about an important issue that could affect their businesses.

"[We're] frustrated about the lack of substance to this debate, and the people we can reach out to are the people we can talk to one on one," said Utah Bankers Association President Howard Headlee. "We're not telling you how to vote. We're encouraging you to consider this issue. I just don't know how you can be more reasonable and fair."

But some experts say the one-sided letters from employers to employees are a bit questionable.

"I think when it comes to politics, businesses have to be very, very careful before entering into the arena on any one side," said Utah State Valley College ethics professor Elaine Englehardt. "When a business does give political advice, workers will often feel pressured to go along with that political advice even though it says this is only a suggestion."

Employers have a right to express their opinions, but doing so might make their employees feel nervous about publicly disagreeing, said Bruce Barry, a professor of management and sociology and Vanderbilt University and author of the book Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace.

"Even when employers have the best of intentions, I think this sort of thing can have a chilling effect," Barry said.

Business leaders say they have nothing but good intentions.

"I don't think it's a problem for an employer to identify potential problems with having huge tax increases on them and their employees," said Thomas Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association.

The Utah State Office of Education is projecting an increase of 155,000 new students over the next 10 years, which the business leaders say will cost over $1.2 billion in new, ongoing costs. Vouchers would spare taxpayers some of that cost because some of those students would be more likely to go to private schools and the state wouldn't have to pay the full cost of their educations, the group says.

"I don't know the details of your family budget, but a property tax increase of that magnitude would have a significant impact on our business," the letter for employees says.

The business leaders say informing employees about that aspect of the debate is imperative.

"Within a few years, the reality of this is going to hit taxpayers right between the eyes," said Headlee, with the bankers association. "Everybody seems to be lost in the philosophical debate. We just want to talk about what's happening."

Mark Mickelsen, Utah Education Association director of communications, said public schools will be able to handle the influx, especially if the money that was to be spent on vouchers were invested in public schools instead.

"The idea we're not going to be able to take care of this influx of children is ridiculous," Mickelsen said. "We have the strongest economy we've ever had. For people to come back and say we're not going to be able to educate our children, they're just trying to scare people."

The teachers' union campaigns against vouchers by calling voters, going door-to-door and through its Web site, Mickelsen said. But there's a difference between that and a business campaigning to its employees, Englehardt said.

"That's what they're supposed to do," Englehardt said of unions. "That's how they lobby."

Business leaders say they're just trying to help. In fact, Questar spokesman Chad Jones said Questar has sent out such material before on other election issues. He said Questar has not yet sent out anything about vouchers but likely will.

"Our goal here is just to educate our employees on the issue as much as possible," Jones said. "I can't imagine anybody would be critical of that."

lschencker@sltrib.com

Big names on board

Utah business leaders who signed the pro-voucher letter, which you can read at http://www.sltrib.com, include:

* Fred Lampropoulos, CEO, Merit Medical

* Keith Rattie, Chairman and CEO Questar Corp.

* Patrick Byrne, CEO, Overstock.com

* Thomas E. Bingham, president, Utah Manufacturers Association

* Howard M. Headlee, president, Utah Bankers Association

* James V. Olsen, president, Utah Food Industry Association

* L. Tasman Biesinger, executive vice president, Utah Home Builders Association

* M. Royce Van Tassell, vice president, Utah Taxpayers Association

* Chris Kyler, Utah Association of Realtors

* Candace Daly, National Federation of Independent Business

* Lee J. Peacock, executive director, Utah Petroleum Association

* David A. Litvin, president, Utah Mining Association