Anatomy of a Voucher Push

Last week the Utah House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill that could become the nation’s first universal voucher program. If this voucher scheme is passed into law, Utah taxpayers will be forced to finance religious education in private Christian and other religious schools– and Utah public schools will be robbed of much needed resources. Even in one of the most conservative states, the voucher movement has faltered in previous attempts to privatize public education. This year, however, sketchy campaign contributions and dirty tricks may help the extreme right-wing pull one over on the people of Utah.

The voucher movement has bought and paid for undue influence in Utah’s legislature. Last year, a political action committee called “Parents for Choices in Education” spent over a half a million dollars with the exclusive goal of electing proponents of school privatization. The organization’s money came from the usual suspects of the voucher movement. Patrick Byrne, chief advocate of the recently defeated 65% Deception plan to defund public schools, gave at least $70,000 to the pro-voucher political action committee. All Children Matter, the political funding arm of the voucher movement founded by Dick and Betsy DeVos, gave the group $240, 000.

One of the politicians the pro-voucher group helped elect is Steve Urquhart, the sponsor of the universal voucher bill. Not only did Urquhart sponsor the legislation, it seems that he may have used his position as chairman of the power House Rules Committee to extort votes for it. Rep. Sheryl Allen, a supporter of public education, has recently claimed that Urquhart will not allow bills she sponsors to get past the Rules Committee. Fortunately, Allen has found a way to work around Urquhart’s obstruction. Unfortunately, however, Urguhart’s underhanded tactics may have forced two other lawmakers to vote his way. The Salt Lake Tribune reports:

When the controversial private school vouchers bill passed the House of Representatives by one vote last Friday, one of the surprise “yes” votes that put it over the hump was Rep. Brad Last, R-St. George, who had voted against the bill in the House Education Committee just a few days earlier…

Here’s a possible reason why: Last, who manages assisted living centers in southern Utah, is sponsoring HB338, which would have made it more difficult to sue emergency room doctors for medical malpractice. The bill had been stuck in the House Rules Committee for two weeks and then, lo and behold, it was passed out of the committee three days after Last voted for the voucher bill.    

And who is the chairman of the Rules Committee? Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George.    

And who is the sponsor of the voucher bill? Urquhart…

Another unknown vote prior to the final tally on the vouchers bill last Friday was Rep. Richard Wheeler, R-Ephraim, a vice president at Snow College.

When crunch time came, he voted yes.

And on Wednesday, when the Capital Facilities Appropriations Subcommittee submitted its priority list for capital facilities projects, a proposed library at Snow College made the cut.

The $14.5 million library was seventh on the list. If the top seven projects are selected, the total cost will be about $144 million. The Legislature has discussed spending $150 million on capital facilities projects this year.

Urguhart’s voucher bill passed by one vote.