School voucher advocates in the Legislature say they hope to raise the quality of debate on the November referendum through an ongoing series of ''town meetings'' statewide.
But the target audiences of the intimate gatherings - active Republican and unaffiliated voters - suggest the meetings are more about marshalling ground troops for the Nov. 6 referendum than about fostering a genuine discussion of the pros and cons of vouchers.
"The meetings have been successful. People have been asking great questions. It's a very different experience than what you've been seeing on the TV wars," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, referring to a recent blitz of broadcast advertising that connects voucher opposition with national liberals, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Edward Kennedy.
But voucher opponents say the so-called town meetings are designed solely to galvanize support for the measure.
The public meetings have not been widely publicized. The Salt Lake Tribune, for instance, had to ask for a schedule of gatherings, and was given an incomplete list. The explanation? Organizers are able to lock down the schedules of busy lawmakers only about a week in advance of any given session.
"If their goal is to really try to inform all potential voters on this referendum - it seems like it's not the most effective strategy," says University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank. "They are talking to a very narrow slice of those voters.
"But if they are trying to put some pressure on people they think should be supporting this, but apparently are not - then it may be somewhat effective," says Burbank.
Lisa Johnson, director of Utahns for Public Schools, said members of the opposition group, who would like to have input in the lawmakers' meetings, have not been informed about the gatherings, even though they have been invited to other debates. Still, Utah Education Association members were able to join a crowd of more than a hundred voters at St. George meeting Tuesday, reportedly resulting in three hours of discussion.
The lawmakers, who organized the meetings through a political action committee called the Informed Voter Project, want to answer the hard questions, Hughes says.
"I want critics on vouchers. I want teachers," he said. "I don't want the meetings to be a bully pulpit for vouchers. . . . I just want people to know what they are voting on."
Hughes said the Informed Voter Project, funded with $200,000 from Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, has been using voter lists to mail and auto-dial citizens about the meetings. But he acknowledged that only Republican and unaffiliated voters have been contacted. Democrats are not being solicited.
Hughes defended the effort to avoid bringing committed anti-voucher people to the legislator meetings. But, he emphasized, no one who comes will be turned away.
"It can get very emotional, we don't want people to come just to yell and holler," Hughes said.
As for using the meetings to mobilize conservatives to vote for the program, Hughes says he could do that more easily by working through the GOP party structure.
Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson speculates on another reason some lawmakers would prefer to keep the meetings low profile. The challenge that bounced the voucher program into a Nov. 6 referendum was a grass-roots effort led by teachers - many of whom are Republicans.
"You've got some legislators who realize they could be on the losing side of this and maybe they sense their constituents are, at best, ambivalent about vouchers."
The group provided incomplete information for its meetings, which are being scheduled a week in advance. All evening meetings are at 7 p.m.
* Today: Spanish Fork Fairgrounds and Sandy Library.
* Tuesday: Daybreak Community Center in South Jordan.
* Wednesday: The Colby School, Park City; Riverton City Hall.
* Thursday: South Jordan City Hall, Provo City Council Chamber.