Voucher 'threat' sparks debate
By Bob Bernick Jr.
Deseret Morning News
Published: September 25, 2007
A high-powered group of Utah businessmen and health experts put forward Monday a plan providing affordable health insurance to an estimated 360,000 Utahns, while GOP legislative leaders are accused of saying that the plan may fail in the 2008 Legislature if leading businessmen don't support vouchers on November's ballot.
"I find this highly offensive — tying health insurance for needy people to education vouchers," said Rep. Phil Riesen, an East Millcreek Democrat who sits on a United Way/business health care subcommittee that put together the comprehensive health insurance plan. GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is studying the plan to see if he will support it in the 2008 Legislature.
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said his comments before the United Way subcommittee — on which both Clark and Riesen sit — were misinterpreted.
"It was not my intent to tether those two issues together," said Clark, the second most powerful Republican in the Utah House.
"I've never had (such) a conversation with a colleague. It has not been a part of any (GOP) leadership conversation — tying health care and vouchers together," said Clark Monday. And he personally does not tie the two issues together, Clark added. "But I do think that those are all relevant issues for discussion."
However, another person at the meeting said he took Clark's comments not as a threat but the GOP leader's candid assessment of the possible political realities in the Legislature — as unpleasant as they may be.
Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said the governor supports both an expanded health-insurance plan to insure more Utahns and the Legislature's voucher program. "But he believes the issues should be vetted and decided on their own merits" and not politically tied together, she said.
Riesen said the implied threat — as he took it — was made in August, just as GOP legislative leaders put together their pro-voucher political issue committee, called the Informed Voter Project. Clark is among the GOP leaders who set up the PIC.
The PIC's aim, as detailed in a Sunday Deseret Morning News report, is to raise at least $300,000 to push the private-school, voucher-tuition plan that goes before voters Nov. 6. The PIC is holding town meetings across the state, with GOP legislators and others trying to inform residents about vouchers and what they will do, GOP legislative leaders say.
According to Riesen, Clark, when asked about the political chances in the Legislature of the broad health-insurance plan, told the health subcommittee that if local businesses don't support the voucher plan, there would be little chance of the health-insurance plan passing the GOP-dominated Legislature.
"Dave said that the Legislature had been very supportive of Utah business in the past, but that given that the business community was not supporting vouchers, he didn't see (the health-insurance plan) passing at all," said Riesen, a former Utah TV newscaster.
"So, 360,000 Utahns are not going to get health insurance" because businessmen won't give money to pro-voucher GOP legislators, said Riesen, who like every Democrat in the 2007 Legislature voted against private school vouchers.
Clark said he never intended to tie together the Legislature's support of business — or support of vouchers several years ago by a group of businessmen — and the current lack of support for vouchers in the November election.
"I don't recall exactly" what he said at the subcommittee, but no connection was meant, Clark added.
GOP leaders admit that they met with local business lobbyists this summer to ask for financial contributions to the pro-voucher PIC.
Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who helped form the PIC, said GOP leaders brought together lobbyists and government liaison officials from businesses and/or trade associations that had previously backed a public education reform plan, which included vouchers. Because the businesses had backed vouchers previously, GOP leaders figure they should now put their money where their mouths are.
But Riesen said Clark's comments upset several members of the United Way subcommittee. "It was very offensive to hear that" from Clark, Riesen said. And some subcommittee members walked out after Clark's political analysis, Riesen added.
Vouchers "are a very emotional issue," Clark said. And he personally finds the anti-voucher ads "deeply disturbing and very disingenuous" — an inaccurate description of vouchers and their intent, he added.
The health-insurance plan — which would help businesses provide health insurance for their employees — is so large and far-reaching that Clark said he doesn't see it passing in the 2008 Legislature. "We hope to move the ball forward. But it will take time to educate people" about the health insurance proposal.
Legislative Republicans adopted a private school voucher law this past session that would provide $500 to $3,000 per child — depending on family income — for parents who send their children to private schools. The schools receive the voucher tuition money, not the families.
Pro-public education groups gathered enough voter signatures last spring to put the measure on this year's ballot.
If voters reject vouchers, most GOP legislators would face re-election in 2008 with voters opposed to one of their major legislative efforts. And a number of Republican lawmakers are apparently taking the voucher issue personally, working hard to get it approved in November.
Huntsman says he will not actively work in favor of vouchers before the vote, although he ran in 2004 on a pro-voucher platform and signed the lawmakers' bill into law last spring.
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