SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said on Thursday that he would veto a school voucher bill if it made its way to his desk.
HB331, also known as the Hope Scholarship program, advanced out of a House committee on Tuesday and still needs to be considered by the full Legislature.
Cox said he will support vouchers at some point but not now because Utah’s schools are underfunded.
“You can’t take money that could go to our schools and allow it to go to private schools when you’re not fully funding the education system in our state,” Cox said during his PBS Utah news conference.
Cox said Utah first need to focus on paying teachers more, especially with inflation and the increasing cost of housing. He said the average starting salary for a teacher in Utah right now is $43,000.
“I don’t want to live in a state where teachers can’t buy a home—that’s not ok,” Cox said. “When teachers are making $60,000 a year to start, I will fully support vouchers.”
Cox’s threat of a veto would only apply if the proposed bill passed without a veto-proof majority.
In a statement posted to Twitter, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, said she is currently working on a substitute bill that would add additional accountability measures for the scholarship.
— Candice B. Pierucci (@CandicePierucci) February 17, 2022
“In addition, this scholarship opportunity will be available not only based on an individual’s income level but will be expanded as an option for students who have been bullied and are seeking alternative options for a safe educational experience,” Pierucci’s statement said.
Pierucci’s statement also reacted to Cox’s comments and said she has been communicating with his staff to find common ground. She said she hopes the governor keeps an open mind about the final version of the bill.
“Hi comments today do not change the process or change my commitment to fine tuning this policy and finding better ways to empower parents and better meet the education needs of Utah’s students,” Pierucci’s statement said.
Also on Thursday afternoon, Democrats in the Utah House of Representatives released a statement in opposition to HB331, saying that public funds should stay in public schools.
“Although the bill purports to give Utah students more education choices, this idea is significantly flawed,” Utah House Democrats said. “It lacks accountability to ensure public dollars are well spent, and it lacks accountability that students will have equal access to opportunities for a good education, including special education.”
The statement from Democrats went on to say that the bill would take $36 million from the state’s education fund every year.