Utah’s contentious voucher proposal — which is poised to gain final approval from lawmakers this week — will likely be passed by a large enough majority to make it impossible for voters to reverse.
And any veto by the governor would likely be overturned.
The bill’s protection stems from how the state’s Republican-majority Legislature works.
If a bill passes with two-thirds of the body in both the House and the Senate, state voters cannot launch a recall effort. That longstanding block was put in place in Utah through a constitutional amendment dating back to 1899 and ratified a year later.
The measure could still be vetoed by Gov. Spencer Cox — which is unlikely, after he announced his support for it this week, despite his concerns over a similar bill last year. Even if he wasn’t on board, that same two-thirds majority in both legislative bodies could then vote to override his veto; if most of the GOP lawmakers vote for something, it easily hits that margin.
That means HB215, which has been fast-tracked this session, is looking incontestable, unlike the voucher bill passed in Utah in 2007.
At that time, Republican lawmakers championed what would have been the nation’s most comprehensive education voucher. The measure passed, even with strong opposition from parents, teachers and advocates.
Those groups then rallied to put a referendum on the ballot to rescind the measure, and they won. More than 62% of Utah voters sided with the repeal effort.
This year’s bill, which is being called the “Utah Fits All Scholarship,” already passed through the full House last week by the two-thirds margin, on a 54-20 vote, though. And on Wednesday, it gained a significant 20-8 tally in the Utah Senate on the first vote.
The Senate votes on bills twice, but if that initial margin is reached again on the second vote it will meet the two-thirds requirement. That is expected to come Thursday.
HB215 sets up a $42 million taxpayer-funded program to grant students scholarships to attend private schools or be home-schooled. It has been framed as an effort to give families more choice over their education.
Senators debated the bill for more than an hour Wednesday, with several Democrats suggesting amendments and substitutes to make the voucher program more accountable for taxpayers by requiring student testing, or to separate the vouchers from the tacked-on $6,000 pay and benefit increase for teachers. But none of their proposals were adopted.
Had they been, it could have slowed down the bill’s progression, and required another vote in the House to concur with the changes.
Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, who is the Senate sponsor of HB215, resisted the amendments, saying: “This bill has been thoroughly negotiated and compromised.”
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, disagreed.
“This is a process. We should be working toward common ground. But we’re not negotiating,” she said. “We are trying to cram this bill through.”
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 expressed objections to the measure. Teachers and students across the three high schools in Salt Lake City held walkouts as the senators were debating Wednesday.
They carried signs that said, “Public money for public schools” and “Legislators walked out on our kids first.”
“There is not an educational group that supports this bill,” Riebe said. “They’ve brought forward some suggestions, but those haven’t been looked at. That’s frustrating.”
Riebe, who works in public education at Granite School District, also pointed to the state’s two existing voucher programs not being fully expended each year. The six Democrats in the Senate joined her in opposition, along with two Republicans, Sens. Derrin Owens and David Hinkins, who both represent more rural areas of Utah and worry there aren’t private schools there for students to go to.
Owens, who has worked as a public educator, pressed Cullimore, who had said in introducing the bill that it “wasn’t an indictment in any way on the public education system.”
“Well, it does feel like an indictment,” Owens said, mentioning “all of the bills over the years that have been suffocating” for educators.
But Cullimore insisted the bill could be adjusted later on as it is implemented and potential issues come up.
“No bill is permanent,” he said. “I think there will be tweaks.”
Any future changes, though, would require a vote by the Legislature either in a special session or the next regular session a year from now.
With the quick-moving bill, too, if it is passed this week, Cox will be given 10 days to sign or veto. If he signs it, the Legislature is required to fund it. That means, even with the budget not set, they must allocate the money no matter what happens.
That rule is for all bills passed in the first 35 days of the session.
— Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke and correspondent Bryan Schott contributed to this report.