SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox threatened a veto of the controversial school voucher bill should it reach his desk.
At his monthly news conference on PBS, the governor defended teachers, whom he says have endured a lot over the past two years keeping classrooms running in the COVID-19 pandemic and feel under attack by bills in the legislature.
"There are lots of bills out there that seem to be kind of pummeling or piling on with our teachers right now and I just hope the legislature will be very careful and cautious," the governor told reporters.
Asked specifically about House Bill 331, the "Hope Scholarship" program, the governor said he is a supporter of choice in education.
"I am an advocate for choice. I’m a huge believer in choice and I think that parents should be able to use taxpayer money in other ways," Gov. Cox said. "We have an incredible charter system of schools here in our state. We have more choice than ever before. I think that’s good. I think that’s positive. At some point I will be absolutely willing to support vouchers. But that point is not now. Because we are under-funding our schools."
When pressed if he would veto the bill should it arrive on his desk, Gov. Cox replied: "Yeah, I would."
On Tuesday, the House Revenue & Taxation Committee voted 6-to-5 to pass bill. The bill offers some money for parents to take their children to private schools or other educational opportunities. Voters rejected a voucher bill in 2007 by a large margin, but lawmakers believe times have changed. Critics of the bill argue it raids already cash-strapped education budgets and benefits largely wealthy families by giving taxpayer dollars to send kids to private schools.
The governor's comments surprised many on Utah's Capitol Hill, where the bill is still making its way through the Utah House of Representatives.
"It would have been nice to have a heads up," said Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, who is sponsoring HB331.
Rep. Pierucci told FOX 13 News she is not giving up, even with a threat of a veto from the governor.
"I’m still committed to making this the best bill possible. We’re in the works for a substitute to make this a better bill. At the end of the day, it’s still good policy to empower parents to make the best decision for their kids," she said.
Supporters of HB331 criticized the governor.
"He’s been talking out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to a system that’s one size fits all," said Allison Sorensen, the executive director of Education Opportunity for Every Child.
Percy Pearson, who was on Capitol Hill meeting with lawmakers and supports the bill said the governor is ignoring the needs of children who need better educational opportunities.
"If it starts affecting his kid? He ain’t going to veto that stuff," he told FOX 13 News.
The Utah Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, was glad to hear the governor's comments.
"It was good news to us today to hear that the governor will veto any bill that arrives on his desk that’s a school voucher this year," said Dr. Sara Jones, the union's vice-president.
The UEA said it was still pushing to defeat the bill in the legislative session.
"We are underfunded in our education system, which teachers and families in Utah have known it for years," Dr. Jones said. "This is not the time divert money to private schools when we still need to find our public system."
Rep. Pierucci suggested that while the governor can certainly veto her bill, the legislature could still override it.
"You can always do a veto override session. There are checks and balances for a reason," she said.