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After watching the state's top Republican leaders get slapped down in a referendum on their pet voucher program, Utahns are wondering: What now?

Are vouchers really dead, or will they rise from Tuesday's crushing defeat to haunt the next legislative session?

Second, will frustrated voucher supporters - some of the most powerful politicians in the state - exact revenge on public school educators and their union for the drubbing the issue suffered in every county? And what does the future hold for the Republican lawmakers who broke ranks to vocally oppose vouchers?

Utah Education Association Executive Director Susan Kuziak expects the voucher battle to grind on. Lawmakers have pushed for at least a decade to implement a voucher or tuition tax credit, she said.

Lawmakers pushing for school vouchers "are an indomitable lot," Kuziak recently told University of Utah journalism students. "They like to assert their power. They don't like to be messed with."

But voucher supporter Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said the issue is dead for the time being, "but I don't know how long that will be."

If the issue is resurrected, Stephenson says, "There will need to be a different kind of approach."

At a pre-election town meeting to drum up voucher support, Rep. Greg Hughes, who sponsored the legislation, admitted that a referendum defeat likely would put a statewide program beyond reach. "I don't think you'll see another bill like this. Maybe a pilot program," Hughes said.

Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, who with Hughes and other lawmakers formed a political-issues committee to push vouchers, says that until Utah's education problems are solved, voucher legislation will always be seen as a possible remedy.

"The challenges of public education, including teacher pay, class sizes and per-pupil spending, are not going away," Bramble said.

Now, with the defeat of vouchers, the onus is on the opponents to propose meaningful alternative reforms, he said.

"I have yet to hear a constructive suggestion from those groups," he said, referring to the Utah Education Association, the PTA and the state School Board.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who was blasted election night by founder Patrick Byrne for being "missing in action" during in the voucher fight, has made it clear a referendum defeat would make a broad voucher proposal unlikely for several years. Huntsman supported vouchers but only asked voters to "get smart" on the issue before they voted.

"For the governor, we've now had a manifestation of the will of the people," said his spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley. "That's what democracy is based on."

Payback time?

The UEA's Kuziak said the education community is fearful of repercussions for campaigning against vouchers.

"I had one of our elected legislators tell me specifically that education funding would suffer," she said, declining to name the lawmaker.

She also suggested there could be anti-union legislation introduced in the attempt to punish the UEA.

Other educators say they expect legislation to change the referendum law, to make it more difficult for the public to oppose the will of the Legislature.

A bill to make the selection of the state School Board a partisan election also may emerge again, they say.

Bramble says the anti-voucher side will label any education reform proposed by Republicans retaliation. "I think you will see several reforms introduced. And when they are introduced, those who oppose vouchers will simply come forward and they will try to pigeonhole them as retribution."

Stephenson said GOP lawmakers' relationship with the UEA will not change, adding that it had soured long ago.

The small band of renegade Republicans who broke with leadership and opposed vouchers were reluctant to discuss possible retaliation for their independence.

"I assume people will be professional. That's the only thing I can assume," said Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield. "If you worry about that when you take a stand, you probably ought not to be in public service."

Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, a former House speaker who knows the power of party leaders to stop legislation, said, "If a person is going to serve, you hope they are mature enough to accept people with different opinions. The whole issue boils down to the majority of the leaders. If they believe in the process, our opposition won't make any difference in how they act."

State School Board Chairman Kim Burningham says he doesn't regret his passionate opposition to vouchers that angered many lawmakers.

"When you're in a position like state school board member or legislator," Burningham said, "you must stand up for what you believe in or you're a chicken."


* LISA SCHENCKER and DAN HARRIE contributed to this report.

Reaction to Utah vote

* National Education Association: ''Utah voters delivered a loud, strong message on Tuesday that they want their tax dollars reinvested in public schools, not private school tuition vouchers.''

* John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, quoted in USA Today: "If [teachers unions] can win in a heavily Republican state like Utah, it sends a message that they can beat these voucher laws anywhere in the country."