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For the first time in more than 30 years, Utah residents will get to decide whether to repeal a new law.

Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday declared a referendum petition drive to overturn Utah's school voucher law "sufficient," meaning the law is on hold until the public votes on a repeal.

Herbert's office verified 124,218 valid signatures among more than 131,000 reportedly submitted to county clerks this month by Utahns for Public Schools, a group of voucher opponents made up mostly of parents, teachers and school administrators.

To get the issue on a ballot, the group needed nearly 92,000 signatures representing 10 percent of 2004 voters in at least 15 counties. The drive met the 10 percent threshold in 25 of Utah's 29 counties.

"We're delighted, of course," said Kim Burningham, who joined the referendum drive outside his role as chairman of the Utah Board of Education.

The petition drive shelves Utah's new Parent Choice in Education Act, which provides public tuition assistance to help parents transfer their children to private schools.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has suggested he'll put the referendum on the February 2008 Western States Presidential Primary ballot because that is the nearest funded election. It would cost $3.5 million to hold a statewide vote during a special June election or November's municipal general election.

Huntsman probably will announce the election date during a special legislative session he intends to call in mid-May, spokesman Mike Mower said. The session will enable legislators to amend state law, which currently allows referendum elections in only June or November.

Although the Parent Choice in Education Act is now on hold, a second school voucher law - which amended the first one and isn't targeted by the referendum petition - went into effect with all new legislation Monday. Voucher supporters and opponents disagree about whether the second law can stand alone while the original act is on hold, though an opinion from the Utah Attorney General's Office said it can.

The state school board on Thursday will discuss whether it can execute that law at its monthly meeting. Whether board members vote to implement or ignore the second law, opponents of their decision likely will challenge it in court.

"I expect that there will be a lawsuit in regards to that issue in our future," Herbert said Monday.

Meanwhile, the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel has until May 15 to prepare a number and title for the voucher ballot measure. The office also will draft 100 words of impartial language summarizing the referendum. The petition sponsors, Utahns for Public Schools, can review the language and challenge it in Utah's Supreme Court if they find it unfair.

Advocates on both sides of the issue will prepare longer pro and con positions for voter information pamphlets before the election, Gay Taylor told legislators earlier this month.

Until Monday, only one referendum drive since 1960 had made it to the ballot - voters repealed the Utah Land-Use Act in 1974.

Support for the voucher referendum was weakest in San Juan, Summit, Washington and Weber counties. Juab, Kane, Millard, Rich, Sevier and Wayne counties showed the strongest support, with petitioners collecting more than twice as many signatures as needed. Beaver County boasted nearly three times the number of required signatures.

Parents for Choice in Education, which lobbied heavily for the voucher law, called Monday's petition announcement "expected." The group will continue its effort to build public support for vouchers and is anticipating implementation of the second voucher bill, executive director Elisa Peterson said.

"We hope the state board will do what's in the best interest of parents and kids," she said.


* NICOLE STRICKER can be contacted at or 801-257-8999.