SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — With less than six weeks remaining before a statewide vote on vouchers, Gov. Jon Huntsman is staying on the sidelines, declining to get pulled into a hot public campaign about tax dollars for private schools.
The silence is angering many conservatives and voucher supporters, who feel Huntsman’s hands-off approach is threatening the voucher movement at a critical point. The popular Republican endorsed the subsidies as a candidate in 2004 and signed the law in February.
“I wish he would step up and be heard here,” said Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City. “A guy that’s pro-something goes out and works it and says, ‘I support it.’ You don’t hear that from him.”
Huntsman isn’t appearing in the numerous television commercials airing throughout the state and isn’t using his bully pulpit to lead public rallies in support for the program, either.
In contrast, fellow Republican South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford spoke to thousands through a megaphone at a statehouse rally earlier this year in a failed effort to pass a similar voucher law.
“I think the overall feeling is, ‘Where is Governor Huntsman? Where is he and why has he backed away and separated himself from this issue?’ Because that’s what it appears he’s done,” said Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman. “There’s a lot of people who are disappointed.”
Huntsman said he doesn’t understand the complaints.
He said he never denies supporting vouchers and answers questions about them during radio and TV interviews, as he did Thursday during his monthly news conference at KUED.
“The only thing I haven’t done is to be a ... pitch person for one particular side of the debate,” Huntsman said.
He said he doesn’t believe it’s proper for a governor to become the poster-boy in commercials paid for by special interests.
The sponsor of the voucher bill, Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said he’s frustrated with Huntsman.
“The governor has political capital — far more political capital than any individual legislator — so it’d be nice to see him spend it on this issue,” he said.
Huntsman has spent political capital before, leading a controversial effort to keep a pro soccer team here. It was the one issue Huntsman publicly lobbied lawmakers for this year. Legislative leaders did the heavy lifting to get the voucher program passed.
The program would give $500 to $3,000 per child to families to use for tuition a private school. The program in Utah, unlike in other states, is not restricted to kids in poorly performing schools.
The law was suspended earlier this year — before anyone received voucher funds — when opponents collected more than 120,000 signatures to force a statewide vote.
Critics say vouchers are poor policy when Utah is starving its public schools of money. Utah spends less per student than any other state and has the nation’s largest class sizes.
Polls show most voters oppose vouchers, along with nearly every educational group in the state, making a November victory an uphill battle for voucher supporters.
A teachers union, the National Education Association, is pouring more than $1.6 million into the anti-voucher campaign. Voucher fans, trying to fire up conservative Utahns, have run TV ads blasting the “liberal” union and even splashing the face of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., on the screen.
Huntsman appears in one pro-voucher ad — on the Internet. It has been viewed on YouTube fewer than 500 times since it was posted in March. He is surrounded by children and their parents but doesn’t speak. A narrator describes the benefits.
“People like the governor. They seem to trust him. If he got behind this ... I’m sure it would be helpful,” said Quin Monson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University.
On the other hand, “he doesn’t want to be on the losing side of an issue — and the likelihood is that it is going to lose,” Monson said.
Others say part of Huntsman’s appeal as a candidate in 2004 was his support for vouchers. They’re puzzled by his absence in the public debate.
“He thinks people need to be educated (on vouchers). In fact, there’s nobody better than the governor to make that case,” said University of Utah political scientist Matthew Burbank.
“The pro-voucher people are a lot better off having Governor Huntsman make the case for vouchers rather than have leaders in the state Legislature make that case,” he said.
Huntsman has frequently said that he did his part in signing the law, and that it’s up to the public to educate themselves about whether it is a worthy program.
Those statements are comforting to Utahns for Public Schools, which is leading the anti-voucher campaign.
“I think it’s good that it’s not become a political pressure game for him,” spokeswoman Lisa Johnson said. “We appreciate his statements that he will accept the referendum as an up-or-down vote.”
That could be a smart political move, too, Jenkins said.
“I guess when you have an approval rating as high as his,” the state lawmaker said, “you don’t want to get anybody mad.”
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