Utah rejects voucher program; N.J. says no to stem-cell proposal

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Utah voters on Tuesday killed the nation's first statewide school voucher program that promised tax dollars for private tuition, no matter how much a family earned or whether children were in bad schools.

In another of the most closely watched questions on state ballots Tuesday, New Jersey voters rejected the state's plan to borrow $450 million over 10 years to finance stem-cell research. In Oregon, residents decided against increasing the cigarette tax to pay for health care for children who don't have it.

The Utah measure was the first voucher election in the U.S. since 2000, when voters in Michigan and California rejected efforts to subsidize private schools. There have been 10 state referendums on various voucher programs since 1972, all of them unsuccessful, according to the National School Boards Association.

Utah, with a conservative electorate, a Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature, was seen nationally as a key test of voter sentiment for vouchers. But opponents, with millions of dollars from a national teachers union, persuaded residents to say no. Experts had said a green light in Utah could have led to similar programs in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana and elsewhere.

The program would have granted $500 to $3,000, depending on family income, for each child sent to private school. The hotly disputed voucher law won approval by one vote in the Republican-controlled Legislature in February but was suspended before taking effect when opponents gathered more than 120,000 signatures to force a referendum.

The New Jersey measure had been one of the nation's most ambitious public efforts to fund stem-cell research.

Multimillionaire Gov. Jon Corzine campaigned heavily for the measure and spent $200,000 of his own money on TV ads for it. He argued the funding would help find cures for conditions such as spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, sickle cell anemia and multiple sclerosis while also luring leading scientists and research firms to the state.

But the measure was opposed by anti-abortion activists, conservatives and the Roman Catholic Church because it would pay for research that destroys human embryos and would increase state debt.

"It's a reinforcement of our values and a rebuke to the governor," said Steve Lonegan, a conservative Republican who led opposition to the question. "The taxpayers are saying enough is enough."

New Jersey already had approved spending $270 million to build stem-cell research facilities.

Several states are competing in stem-cell research. California approved spending $3 billion on stem-cell research, Connecticut has a $100 million program, Illinois spent $10 million and Maryland awarded $15 million in grants.

Senate President Richard J. Codey, a Democrat and leading stem cell supporter, pinned the defeat on chronic state fiscal problems and mounting state debt.

"The taxpayers of New Jersey are not against stem-cell research," he said. "It's clear. The message we're getting is put your fiscal house in order and then do these things."

Among the other measures on ballots Tuesday:

-- Oregon voters opted not to raise the cigarette tax by 84.5 cents a pack -- to $2.02 -- to fund health insurance for about 100,000 children now lacking coverage. Tobacco companies opposing the measure outspent supporters by a 4-1 margin, contributing nearly $12 million.

-- Texans authorized up to $3 billion in bonds over 10 years to create a cancer research center. The proposal was pushed by cycling champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and opposed by some fiscal conservatives.

-- Voters in the northeast Ohio city of Streetsboro, where a 19-year-old fell short of reaching a runoff in the mayoral primary last May, raised the legal age to run for mayor or council from 18 to 23.

-- In Denver, voters were asked whether to make the private use and possession of marijuana the city's lowest law enforcement priority. Elected officials and police said it would have little effect since state and federal law supersede local law decriminalizing the drug.

In 2005, Denver passed an initiative making possession of small amounts of marijuana legal. It's had little effect. Police and prosecutors continue to follow state law, which marijuana proponents tried but failed to change through a vote last year.

-- Residents of Hailey, Idaho, a former mining town with about 3,500 registered voters, approved three measures to legalize medical marijuana, make enforcement of marijuana laws the lowest police priority, and legalize industrial hemp. They rejected an initiative that would have legalized marijuana and required the city to regulate sales.

-- The Passamaquoddy Indians were asking approval to operate a racetrack casino with up to 1,500 slot machines in the town of Calais, Maine, where downturns in the seafood and paper industries have made the economy the worst in the state. The question trailed slightly with about three-quarters of precincts reporting.

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