Huntsman Says He'll Seek AG's Opinion on Voucher Law

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Gov. Jon Huntsman said Thursday he will seek an opinion from the attorney general to clarify whether Utah's new school voucher program would be killed if opponents overturn the law in a statewide election.

If critics gather 92,000 signatures by the April 9 deadline, Huntsman also said he'd likely call a special election this summer instead of waiting until 2008.

There's confusion and uncertainty about the voucher program, which would provide $500 to $3,000 per student if families choose a private school over a public one.

The Legislature passed two laws on vouchers, and foes are targeting just one in their petition drive. Supporters insist the program will survive even if one law is killed through a referendum.

Speaking to reporters at his monthly KUED news conference, Huntsman said he will ask Attorney General Mark Shurtleff for an opinion in the next few weeks.

Utah's voucher program is the broadest in the country because it is not solely aimed at low-income residents or getting kids out of certain weak schools.

Nearly every educational organization in the state is seeking to repeal the law that created vouchers, saying tax dollars shouldn't subsidize private schools.

A second voucher bill that was signed into law includes much of the same language, but it doesn't have many of the specific guidelines found in the first. The second also doesn't provide $5.4 million.

Huntsman said he would favor a summer election because vouchers could be available for the new school year, if voters decided to keep the program.

If vouchers are killed, Huntsman said he wouldn't try to push through more money or add language to the second law.

"If you have 90,000 people vote it down, that's a sign and I would obviously respect that," the governor said.

On another issue, Huntsman said he intends to make higher teacher pay a priority in the 2008 legislative session.

Utah is growing but it isn't retaining enough teachers or producing enough new ones to keep up with rising enrollments. Huntsman said the state is in a poor position to lure teachers here because of low salaries.

The average starting salary in Utah was $26,130 in 2004, the most recent year available. Only seven states had a lower figure.

Utah is 38th for average pay of all teachers, which includes thousands who are approaching retirement and tend to earn the most.

Lawmakers this year included a $68.7 million increase in education funding to raise the pay scale in every district. Every teacher would get a $2,500 raise, plus a one-time bonus of $1,000. The state will cover taxes on the bonus.

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(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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