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Vouch for Us 

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The money flowed like sweet cream to Utah’s school voucher camp earlier this year via a national political-action committee called All Children Matter. The donations to All Children Matter came in part from heirs to Amway and Wal-Mart fortunes'the former being a Michigan-based pyramid marketing power and the latter being the smiley-faced wealthiest discount retailer in the free world.


Parents for Choice in Education collected half a million dollars to push a voucher bill at the 2007 Utah Legislature, and then to fight a petition drive that will put the issue before voters in November. Half of that money came from right-wing, out-of-state interests (like Amway) that figure God has been AWOL from schools long enough and siphoning money from public education for private schools is the way to save this ailing nation.


Meanwhile, polls have shown up to 57 percent of Utah residents oppose tax-supported private tuition credits. There is also the matter of those 90,000 registered and officially confirmed voters’ signatures that will put the issue on the ballot in November.


Sometimes, the money be damned. Hard to believe, I know, but sometimes the good guys still win. Good guys'uh, that would be us, the people. On June 8, the Utah Supreme Court took a few pages to spell it out, but essentially underscored a handy lesson in civics. We still have three branches of government, the courts still validate laws and this time it was unanimous: The people will decide.


It was tough to fathom here in Utah, where we’re so regularly crushed by the weighty arrogance of state government: a goon squad of legislators that always knows best, and an attorney general whose quirky, manic moments include the “firing” of two attorneys who work for another constitutional office (the state Board of Education).


For weeks, we suffered through the muddle of our Legislature, which gave us quantity but not quality in a vain attempt to establish a school-voucher system. Two bills emerged'as if by shouting twice at your spouse, you will get your way (tell me where that ever gets you).


The Legislature passed the bills. The attorney general and school-voucher supporters clung to a technicality in the law they saw clearly but which the state Supremes could not see through a glass darkly. And, when Chief Justice Michael Wilkins went to the microphone late in the same day the court heard arguments, he said the voters matter. They would decide the issue. Voucher cheerleaders melted like a kid’s Popsicle at the Pioneer Day parade.


Attorney General Mark Shurtleff was “very, very pleased that the court did what it did,” said Ray Hinze, his chief deputy attorney. Huh? Is that our Shurtleff, the same guy who sent a crummy little letter days before to two state Board of Education lawyers announcing his decision to spike their “special status” with his office?


Utah County powerhouse and Chief Legislative Intimidator Curtis Bramble was a bit more dignified, telling reporters “I appreciate the Supreme Court expediting the decision so voters know what they are voting on.” Rep. Craig Frank, R-Pleasant Grove, went all bongo on his blog (UnderTheDome.com): “My feeling is the high court enjoys legislating from the bench, a constitutional duty, last time I checked, assigned to the Legislature.” Frank must have been snoozing in the legislative library stacks the day the body took up Utah Constitution Article 10 Section 3. It establishes the State School Board for “general control and supervision of the public-education system.”


The rest of the pro-voucher politicians mirrored the Shurtleff back-off by issuing mostly complimentary statements about the court decision, though they had to have been smarting like hell. What gives? What came over these sunshine combatants?


It’s as simple as a vampire backing away from a crucifix or a werewolf running to escape the dawn. They suddenly realized, if on a rare occasion, they work for the public. And as dozy and complacent as the public can seem, sometimes it truly will have its way.


What’s up next? Surely, a lesson in the general rule of American politics: follow the bouncing green dollar. Both sides will reach deep into the pockets of their backers'the anti-voucher National Education Association and pro-voucher Wal-Mart (Ha. And you thought they were too busy opening banks) and Utah’s own Overstock.com. That company’s CEO, Patrick Byrne, has special sway with lawmakers, having given $80,000 last year to Parents for Choice and chiming in regularly with anti-teachers-union rhetoric.


The money will fly toward both sides, and by the time back-to-school sales kick up, we’ll be bored stiff with it all. We’ll try to cut through the solemn vapors'the threats of parents losing their power and death-of-the-world-as-we-know-it advertising. Eventually, it will end in a vote up or down for school vouchers. That, and the warm, fuzzy memory of a special Utah moment: when, just for a change, the people got the chance to decide.


More Mullen: Mullentown.com

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