SALT LAKE CITY — Voters will decide the fate of school vouchers in an up-or-down fall referendum, the Utah Supreme Court declared late last week, clearing up any confusion over whether tax dollars still can be spent for private tuition even if the law is overturned.
In a 4-0 ruling June 8, the court said a second voucher law was not enough to start the program if voters kill the original law Nov. 6.
The second law “is not intended to stand alone,” said Justice Michael Wilkins, speaking from the bench on behalf of his colleagues.
The decision was a rejection of assertions made by Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and other top Republicans, who insisted the voucher program could survive on another law, a referendum-proof set of amendments passed by legislators to tidy up the primary law.
The court swept away confusion and set the stage for a spirited campaign as people for and against vouchers try to influence the election.
“Voters will be heard on election day,” said Holly Langton of the Utah PTA, which opposes the taxpayer-funded program for private schools. “This will give a clear vote to voters, and that’s what the PTA was seeking.”
The court refused to change the ballot language, turning aside pleas from both sides. Supporters and opponents seemed happy that the justices made clear what the November vote will mean.
“It’s exactly what we’re looking for,” said Sen. Dan Eastman, R-Bountiful, speaking on behalf of the Senate’s pro-voucher Republican leaders. “We’re comfortable with the court’s ruling.”
It came just three hours after the Supreme Court held a hearing where state attorneys argued there was nothing wrong with the ballot question, which asks voters whether they want to repeal House Bill 148, which set up the voucher program.
The referendum is silent on House Bill 174, a set of amendments that passed the Legislature by a veto-proof majority.
The voucher program would give parents $500 to $3,000, depending on family size and income, for each child they send to private school. Children already in private school wouldn’t be eligible, except for students from low-income families.
The four justices made clear the amendments in H.B. 174 can’t authorize vouchers on their own. Wilkins promised a full written opinion within weeks.
A fifth justice, Chief Justice Christine Durham, did not participate. She recused herself because her brother-in-law works for a law firm that represented legislative sponsors and the pro-voucher group Parents for Choice in Education.
Wilkins said the court could intervene only if a ballot question was “patently false or biased,” a charge nobody has made.
“Why isn’t this a legislative problem?” Wilkins asked lawyers during the hearing. “How is it that we’re the ones who get to fix it?”
He brought laughter to the staid proceeding in a discussion about why legislators who approved the original bill by a single vote gave the second bill a super-majority vote.
“We always have difficulty understanding what is going on in the mind of legislators,” he said.
Wilkins, rejecting the petitions of a number of parties seeking ballot changes, joked that the pile of court briefs must have brought down a small forest.