Thursday, October 25, 2012
The article below if from an article I wrote for the Spectrum Newspaper in September 2012. Under outstanding leadership, and in cooperation with the Commissioner of Higher Education and the Board of Regents, Dixie State College has been working over the past several years to achieve the goals outlined in a benchmark study commissioned to aid its transition to university status. I am pleased to report that the college is very close to achieving those goals. These goals have been met in no small part because of Dixie State’s creative use of limited resources. Through digital learning and partnerships with other institutions the world has increasingly become our campus. For example, institutions like Harvard and MIT have put some of their very best programs on-line, and our students will continue to take advantage of these. Similarly, outreach programs at the University of Utah—and potentially Utah State and other institutions—provide our students access to specialty degree programs, some of which may only need to be offered once a year. Our students also enjoy a wider range of health care opportunities, thanks to a-partnership with Intermountain Health Care. This remarkable collaboration has provided great educational programs as well as employment opportunities, two of our area’s leading economic drivers. Such developments have allowed us to provide a complete college experience for students, while making the most of our education budget and maintaining the hometown atmosphere of our campus. Growth has also meant that we have been able to capture the tuition dollars necessary to expand our own programs, rather than allowing the money to go elsewhere. This, in turn, has made it possible to continue to expand the curriculum and to recruit a world-class faculty and staff. A city with a thriving institution of higher education has cultural and economic development opportunities not just for students, but the entire community. I anticipate that the additional degrees Dixie State needs for its new status will have the Regents’ approval before the end of 2012 and that the Board will vote to approve the change in January. This means that it is now time to formally begin the transition. To this end, I have opened a bill file for the 2013 legislative session, which will facilitate the change of Dixie State’s status from college to university. Senator Urquhart will be the Senate sponsor of the bill. I know the entire delegation from Washington County is very supportive of this transition and legislation and will be working through the upcoming legislative session to facilitate the bill’s passage. Hopefully this legislation will open the door to another century of success for an institution that has long been a great benefit to our community and region. Good luck to Dixie State as we work through this final transition and happy studying to all the students will benefit from expanded opportunities, classes and degrees!
This is from an article I submitted to the Spectrum Newspaper in May of 2012. After the Legislature adjourns in March each year, I’m often asked what legislators do the rest of the year. Most people are aware that legislators only serve part-time, but many are unaware that the part-time service continues throughout the year. From April through November the House and Senate resolve into joint committees co-chaired by a senator and a representative. The committees meet once a month to study issues, review potential bills and receive budget updates from State departments. We call this time period “the Interim.” Our State has one of the shortest annual sessions in the nation at only 45-days. In addition, many states separate budget and issues sessions into separate years or sessions. We do both budgets and issues in the same session. The only way to accomplish all of the States business in 45-days is to lay all the groundwork in advance. I often think of annual session as the 4th quarter of a football game. Right now we are starting the 1st quarter of a new game that will conclude in March of 2013. During our first interim meetings held last Wednesday, the committees received the annual training required by the Open and Public Meeting Act, reviewed the list of statutorily required reports and sunset reviews by each committee, reviewed the list of Master Study Resolution items, and heard reports on various issues. The Master Study Resolution is an important guide as to what items will be studied. Legislators add items to this list throughout the annual session and then the resolution is passed as one of the final bills of the session. It almost serves as a “to do list” of items that might have needed more review, study or input before final action could be taken. The first interim meetings also offer opportunities for legislators to suggest new items for committees to study. If you have an idea for a bill or an issue that you want to be studied by the Legislature, now is the time to contact your legislator. Bills take time to be drafted and often a bill needs to be considered from multiple angles to ensure there are no unintended consequences by a change in policy. Groups that will be impacted need time to review and offer input on how to improve the bill or mitigate negative impacts. Often when someone brings up a new idea during the annual session, there just isn’t time in the 45-days to draft, study, gather input, and complete the committee hearing and voting process before the final gavel. On a more personal level, this is also the time of year where legislators might personally dig into an issue that they want to understand better and that might lead to legislation later in the year. For instance, I’m working with a small group of legislators on the issue of restaurant liquor licenses. Our license system has created license shortages that have stymied economic development in some cases. No one wants to make any changes that might increase DUIs or over consumption, but other states handle liquor licenses in different ways and perhaps we can learn from their licensing systems. There maybe be a better way to manage this issue for all parties involved. It is an ambitious course of study and I’m excited to see what we learn and what conclusions we can draw. Please feel free to contact your State Legislator if you have an idea, a question or would like to know how to engage more in the interim process. Many good bills are the result of ideas from constituents suggesting something that could be done differently for a better outcome.
Final Gavel of 2012 We did it! Our $13 billion budget is balanced, we debated nearly 1,000 bills, and now we are adjourned until January 2013— unless, of course, the Governor calls the Legislature back into a special session at some point during the year. We were able to address the financial needs of the State without any tax increases and managed to put $11 million back into our Rainy Day Fund. Public education received the lion’s share of additional funding this year. Some of the funding items were included because our revenue estimates have grown from what was originally projected at about $280 million to now about $422 million. Here is a list of new spending items for Public Education over and above the Public Education base budget: • $41 million for enrollment growth for the 12,500 new students that will start school next year, • $5 million for teacher supplies, • $7 million for computer adaptive testing, • $5 million for small, rural schools, • Nearly $22 million increase in per pupil spending, • $5 million for online testing, • $2.5 million for charter schools, • Over $1 million for special education students, • $5 million for school buildings I wanted to provide some brief updates on some of the notable bills during the session. Two bills, SB 66 and HB 354, deal with some reforms to our State’s alcohol management policy. Legislative audits last fall revealed mismanagement and possible criminal malfeasance within the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC). Together these bills would make changes to the management and operations of the DABC. The bills would expand the number of commissioners, provide for internal auditors, and for Senate approval of commissioners appointed by the Governor. The bills would also move the management of money from alcohol sales and alcohol mark-ups to the State Tax Commission in order to provide for better account checks and balances of these critical funds. The Department of Public Safety is also charged, under these bills, with collecting data about alcohol abuse, underage drinking, DUI rates, over-serving, and over-consumption. Currently, the data used is either outdated or based on historical precedent.This information would allow for more correct and appropriate policy creation in the future. HB 173, Transportation Funding Modifications, is another important bill that will reduce our State bonding authorization for roads by $130 million. Essentially this means we are self-imposing a lower credit limit so we eliminate the possibility of over extending ourselves with road debt. Rather than have outside financial entities or economic circumstances dictate our credit and debt, we are self-regulating our credit limit. The best guarantee against future economic crisis is to ensure our budgets are sustainable. The bill also gives UDOT increased flexibility to move funding around within their budget for various projects by extending the road budget process out for a period of 3-fiscal years. Often projects on the list are in different phases of readiness due to design, environmental impacts and other factors. This will also allow UDOT to move projects ahead that are shovel ready over other projects that still need design; resulting in lower construction costs and other savings with the flexibility. It is anticipated that with this flexibility, UDOT will be able to complete additional transportation projects while at the same time reducing our overall bonding debt. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to represent you at the Legislature. I appreciate all the feedback I received during the session and hope you will continue to reach out to me with your views and issues.
The following is from an article I submitted to the Spectrum Newspaper in March of 2012. The Internet has changed all of our lives. From E-mail to Facebook to the Wikipedia we now access a variety of information in a whole different way. It has also changed the way we shop. I think we can all admit to shopping from the couch in pajamas! As Internet retail has evolved and grown, the problem of how to collect sales tax on the online purchases has also grown. Right now an online retailer that also has a physical retail presence in the State must collect and remit sales tax just as brick and mortar retailers do. An example of this might be buying a book from www.barnesandnoble.com. Since there are brick and mortar Barnes and Noble stores in the State, the online retailer will collect and remit the sales tax on a purchase. However, online retailers without a physical presence can pass the burden for remitting sales tax back to the purchaser who then must remit the tax on their annual State tax return. Unfortunately, the Utah State Tax Commission reports that less than 1% of Utahns file any sales and use tax on their tax returns. Yet, the percentage of Utahns making purchases on-line where sales and use tax is not collected is likely much higher than 1% percent, especially for generations X and Y. Many Utahns are not even aware they owe tax on these online purchases. This difference in tax burden from brick and mortar retailers to online retailers without nexus is significant. Since online retailers don’t collect sales tax on their products, they are able to offer products for about 7% less. It isn’t that the product is really 7% less; it is the difference between a tax being collected and a tax not being collected. The impact on our local retailers is significant, but so to is the impact to the State. A 2011 Janney Capital Markets’ study estimated that Utah misses out on $180 million each year in online sales tax. This is a growing sales segment as more and more people conduct purchases on-line. Compounding this issue is the problem that some online retailers are engaged in a deliberate shell game of hiding manufacturing, service or distribution centers in separate holding companies in order to avoid the sales tax collection. This session a bill has been proposed that seeks to address this online sales issue and close the loophole of what constitutes physical presence. HB 384 would provide for an expanded definition of nexus for online retailers. This is just the first step toward market equity on the issue of sales tax for online and brick and mortar retailers, but it is an important first step. The shell game must stop. As the Legislature evaluates this bill we will consider the needs of all retailers and the sales tax principles regarding fairness to Utah’s retailers. Government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers when it comes to tax policy.
Fiscal Update: Slow & Steady Growth We are now in the budget intensive part of the annual legislative session. This past week we received new revenue projections that we will use to finalize the budget. Early in the session, we “pencil” in the budget numbers based on the December 2011 projections. These new numbers are more accurate and will allow us to do the final work of balancing the budget. The revised projections show additional growth of about $14 million dollars, bringing our total revenue growth to $422 million. We also learned in the past week that the State would be receiving $23 million as Utah’s portion of the national mortgage lender settlement. Overall, this is good news. It means the State is experiencing slow, but steady growth. Many states are not yet experiencing growth in the post-recession period. We still have more funding requests than money available, so the work of sifting the requests by priority will begin in earnest next week. Some of the top items that are considered likely to receive some of the revenue growth include: 1% pay raises for teachers and state employees, replenishment of the Rainy Day Fund, and higher education pay raises. The majority of the additional revenue will be used to fund growth in public education, Medicaid, and to address the structural deficit of $52 million in on-going programs that were backfilled with one-time money during the recession. Earlier in the session, we passed the base budgets which make up 95% of our nearly $13 billion State budget. The remaining 5% of the budget will be completed in the next 2 weeks as we finalize allocating the $422 million of revenue growth and $23 million from the mortgage lender settlement. There are several important public policy issues being discussed this year, but one that I find particularly intriguing deals with performance pay for school administrators and teachers. Merit or performance pay is the term usually used when discussing the idea of rewarding the good performers and penalizing the bad. In concept the plan is simple; identify criteria that people associate with good teachers and administrators and when the criteria is met apply a reward. However, identifying those criteria has proven to be a challenging task. Previous proposals have met with opposition from various groups and have stalled before ever coming to a vote. This year it seems we might have found a proposal that has the support of the Salt Lake Chamber, Prosperity 20/20, the State Board of Education, UEA, USBA and the PTA. The basic premise of the bill is to address a school’s leadership and then follow that through to the teaching level. Under this bill every administrator would have an annual evaluation which would measure 4 key criteria: a) leadership skills (based on supervisor, teachers, and parent comment), b) student progress indicators (like annual school grade), c) competence and consistency in completing teacher evaluations, and d) other district criteria. All future salary increases would be converted to pay for performance until 15% of an administrator’s direct compensation is tied to their annual performance evaluation. The bill then addresses teaching by having administrators evaluate and rank teachers annually on a scale of 1 to 4. A public report would be compiled for each school listing the number of teachers who fall within each of the evaluation levels each year. Teachers who fall in the bottom half of the evaluation scale would not be eligible for annual salary increases (steps and lanes). Additionally, administrators would have 120 days from the notice of poor evaluation to remediate the teacher or make a decision to terminate the teacher. Repeated poor performance by teachers within a 3-year time- frame could be cause for termination. Obviously, addressing performance pay for administrators and teachers is only the first of many steps toward improving public education, but I think this is an excellent proposal. Please feel free to contact me with any comments or questions on any bills. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to represent you on Capitol Hill.
Positive Fiscal News Kicks-Off 2012 Session! For the first time in nearly three Legislative sessions, we are starting off the year with positive fiscal news! During the Great Recession, the State lost over $1 billion in revenues and faced steeper budget cuts than even encountered during the Great Depression. This year, however, we are entering the annual legislative session with positive revenue growth of nearly $400 million. Hopefully when we receive the final revenue projections during Week 4 of the session, that number will hold solid. The challenge after so many years of belt tightening will be to resist spending our surplus with abandon. The lesson of the recession is renewed fiscal responsibility. Utah has always enjoyed the reputation of a fiscally prudent state, which allowed us to weather the recession with our AAA bond rating intact and a portion of our Rainy Day Fund still unspent. However, we must renew our commitment to investing wisely in economic development opportunities, continuing to fund growth in public education, and to continuing to set aside funds for a rainy day. Our State budget is the same as a family budget, just on a larger scale, and should adhere to all the same principles of sound budgeting. The end of Week 2 of the legislative session marks an important budget milestone, the passage of base budgets. We use a “base budget” process to help streamline the budgeting process in our relatively short 45-day session. We are required by legislative rule to vote on base budgets in the second week. Ideally, the budgets are meant to match the prior year’s funding. This means that if the Legislature did nothing else for the remainder of the session, the State would continue to operate on flat budgets. Base budgets account for 95% of the total State budget, the other 5% will come as new programs or other one-time spending initiatives that will be added over the coming weeks. The 5% of the budget still to be allocated includes the $400 million in revenue growth, much of which is already earmarked to fund student growth in public education, one of our areas of greatest need. Due to the recession, base budget the past few years had included some across the board budget cuts. This year, however, it hasn’t been necessary to trim the base budgets at all. Another sign that the worst of the recession seems to be behind us! At this point, the Legislature has sent 33 bills to the Governor to sign or veto, but we still have 1,073 bills awaiting consideration. Not all of these bills will make it to the Governor’s desk. Some will fail to pass muster in committee, others will stall in floor debate or be held due to a requirement for funding prior to implementation. Obviously we still have a lot of work to do over the next 5 weeks. Some of the issues I’m actively following include computer adaptive testing (HB 15), which could have a dramatic improvement on how we test students to better allocate resources and teaching efforts. The testing allows for real-time feedback for teachers so students are placed in the proper skill level group earlier in the school year. Another important issues is Main Street fairness, the idea that on-line retailers must collect and remit sales tax just as brick & mortar merchants do so as not to provide a competitive advantage to on-line retailers. In future articles and newsletters I will continue to keep you up to date on the budget process and critical bills being considered by the Legislature. Please feel free to contact me with any comments or questions on bills. I always enjoy feedback from constituents and find it very helpful when gauging how to vote on the important issues that come before us. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to represent you on Capitol Hill.
This is from an article I submitted to the Spectrum Newspaper in February of 2012. Snow Canyon is a beautiful and important part of community, but I’m concerned about the access restrictions and fees limit the publics’ use and enjoyment of our park. The fees and regulations applied to the park don’t necessarily reflect the way our community views and would like to use the park. It is my desire to achieve a balance that preserves the pristine nature of the park and gives access to the people who actually own this crown jewel. Concern about the public's access to Snow Canyon State Park has created enough public interest that I have asked a group to join me in reviewing this situation. The committee includes: park manager Kristen Comella, Assistant Region Manager Lawrence Twitchell, Deputy Director Tim Smith, St. George Mayor Dan McArthur, Ivins Mayor Kris Hart, and Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner. We need to address reasonable user fees and reconcile them with the use of the park and park facilities. Restrictions to some areas and fees to simply pass through the park are at the top of my list of concerns. The Desert Tortoise Preserve in Washington County and within the boundaries of Snow County State Park does complicate the mission and use of the area, however it is limited in total acreage compared to the overall size, therefore we will work through those issues to improve the peoples access The reality is that this is a very well loved State Parks with a high user rate, but that doesn’t mean we need to drive people away with restricted access and high fees. If we are unable to come up with a satisfactory management plan for Snow Canyon, I am prepared to propose legislation that would move management of the park to a joint management system that includes Washington County, Ivins and St. George City. Together these entities have parks departments and law enforcement personnel necessary to manage this area without adding unnecessary costs to local governments. I believe it might be best if this park is placed under local control so that the needs of the community are met. Government is always better when it is closer to the people. I believe local governance of this park will better serve the people of Southern Utah by ensuring our access to the park are not overlooked in a broader State Park management system. The role this park plays in our community it too important to have our access limited.
From an article I sent to the Spectrum Newspaper in September of 2011 providing an update on my assignment on the Redistricting Committee. The redistricting process has been very interesting, engaging, and enlightening process. I’ve learned the job of drawing maps is much harder than it looks and I’m glad that once we finish, we won’t need to repeat the process for another decade. As Southern Utah’s lone member to serve on the Redistricting Committee, I have had the opportunity to visit 17 communities in all regions of the state listening to the peoples’ concerns regarding the boundaries to be created by the process. The public was very engaged in the process and most meetings were well attended with many people wanting to offer comments. For the first time in the redistricting process there has been computer software available to the public at www.redistrictingutah.com for anyone to have a hand in drawing maps for State School Board districts, State Senate, State House and the ever illusive Congressional map. This is a gigantic evolution in the redistricting process. Even the last process in 2001 featured software systems that required too much memory and sophisticated computer know how in order to operate the program. This time it made a big difference for committee members and the public to be able to fully participate. At the local meetings anyone who had drawn a map had the chance to present to the committee. The base map for State School Board was one drawn by Rob Horner, an interested citizen from Logan. Public ideas and input from citizen maps were used to flesh out the details of the other redistricting maps. Washington and Iron counties have had a combined growth that has resulted in some interesting maps. Though the results aren’t final until the vote during the October 3rd Special Session, this is what has been generally agreed to for Southern Utah. 1) A new open seat will be created for State School Board that will cover both counties. 2) The final boundaries for Washington and Iron counties will result in five total State House seats (currently four State House Seats) with one being a new open seat in Washington County. Cedar City will be included in one district rather than divided between two seats in Iron County. The numbers were so close that we have 18 more people in the two counties than would be considered the ideal balance based on the census numbers for five seats. 3) Washington County will have one entirely contained State Senate seat and Washington, Iron and Beaver Counties will share a second State Senate seat. The illusive Congressional map is still just that… illusive! There are still a few more redistricting meetings before the October 3rd Special Session to work on the Congressional map. Stand by for the excitement as we complete our work on the pizza slice/donut hole or totally new food group Congressional map. I want to thank everyone that has sent in maps or comments. You all know more about the unique neighborhoods, communities and geography in your area than the computer software and it is important we combine the sophistication of computer map drawing with the heart and soul of the people that live in the districts.
The following is from an article I submitted to the Spectrum Newspaper in May of 2011 The redistricting process can seem like an odd ritual with obscure rules because it is something that only happens once every ten years. Like a total solar eclipse, this is a rare event and it can be easy for the details of how the process works to fade from our memories between cycles. As the only legislator from Southern Utah on the redistricting committee, I feel very lucky to be a part of this historic process that will shape the political future of our corner of the State for the next decade. There are two very important events coming up for our area. The Redistricting Committee will be holding two hearing in Southern Utah on Saturday, June 11th, 2011. The first will be at 10:00 am in Cedar City, then the committee with move to St. George for a 3:00 pm hearing. This is your opportunity to weigh in on how the districts ought to be drawn and I hope you will take advantage of the opportunity. The committee has adopted some overarching principles and procedural guidelines that will guide the committee in its work. The six principles are: 1. Congressional districts must be as nearly equal as practicable with a deviation not greater than ± .1 %. 2. State legislative districts and state school board districts must have substantial equality of population among the various districts with a deviation not greater than ± 3.5%. 3. Districts will be single member districts. 4. Plans will be drawn to create four Congressional Districts, 29 State Senate Districts, 75 State House Districts, and 15 State School Board Districts. 5. In drawing districts, the official population enumeration of the 2010 decennial census will be used. 6. Districts will be contiguous and reasonably compact. Many of these principles have their roots in various court cases that have refined the redistricting process over the course of U.S. history. For instance in the case of Reynolds v. Sims in 1964, the Supreme Court held state political districts of unequal size resulted in under-representation of some citizens' interests and over-representation of others'. This was considered "unrepublican," per Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution, and also unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. In order to meet constitutional standards, districts had to be reapportioned so each had approximately equal population. Other court rules have expressed the court’s preference for single member districts and for contiguous and compact (i.e. protection against gerrymandering) districts (Shaw v. Reno 1993 and Miller v. Johnson 1995). Some of the most difficult parts of the redistricting process have been eased with the advent of computer mapping software; making it possible to “draw” district while the computer does the hard work of calculating the population totals as the lines shift on the map. One difficulty will likely always remain. Were our population evenly distributed across the State, it would be easy to grid off square districts with even lines. However, our population is anything but evenly distributed and geographic features often separate populations in ways that defy even, straight lines. The Legislature is working on an on-line tool that will allow anyone to try their hand at drawing district maps and I encourage everyone to log-on and give it a try. I hope to see you all on June 11th for the redistricting hearings!
2011 Session Summary Forty‐five days start to finish, $12 billion dollars spent and nearly 500 bills passed. The 2011 legislative session is now complete and in the history books. The most important duty of the Legislature is to pass a balanced budget, something we did this year as we do every year. One of the biggest budget challenges this year was deciding what to do about the $313 million deficit that existed at the beginning of the session. The recession, while weakening like a spent storm, is still having a negative impact on State revenues. The early options for dealing with the deficit were: cut budgets up to 7%, spend some of the Rainy Day Fund, raise taxes, or some combination of these choice. While considering these options, we kept our fingers crossed that the final revenue projections would reveal an improving economy through the New Year. Economic recovery was on our side and the final revenue projections showed an increase in both on‐going and one‐time funding sources, narrowing our budget gap to about $50 million. Who would have thought that one day a $50 million dollar deficit would have been cause for celebration? At this point we are one of only six states that still holds a AAA bond rating. At the beginning of the recession, 41 states had rainy day funds and reserves that totaled at least 5 percent of their budgets. By 2010, only 22 states had reserves at all according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. We will finish the session with just over $200 million still available in our Rainy Day Fund. Given the stark realities of the budget picture, I am very pleased to report that for the first time in three years we were able to fund enrollment growth in our public schools. Nearly 14,000 new students are expected to enter Utah schools next year. While our public education budget is relatively flat, this injection of enrollment growth cash will help fund the new teachers necessary to absorb the new students into our schools. We hope that next year’s budget will allow for increased spending in this area so we can reduce classroom size and fund education initiatives. Medicaid is another area of State spending that saw an increase in funding, however this is a reason for alarm rather than celebration. This budget will increase by 4.1% due to caseload growth, the expiration of federal stimulus funding and new federal program requirements. At current growth rates, it will not be long before Medicaid replaces public education in the top‐spending category. The Legislature is starting a process this year to cap Medicaid per enrollee spending to no more than the growth of the overall general fund and to take advantage of payment plans that incentivize cost and outcomes rather than a fee based on the number of procedures performed. Immigration reform occupied much of our efforts this session. This has been a very difficult and emotional issue. In the end, the Legislature voted for a package of bills that addressed the issue from both economic and enforcement perspectives. The package included two different guest worker programs; one that would require a federal waiver to implement and another that would contract directly with the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon for skilled migrant labor. The package includes requirements that police check the immigration status of people detained or arrested for felonies and class A misdemeanors and gives police the discretion to check the status of those suspected for class B and class C misdemeanors. It also contains penalties for employers that fail to verify the lawful presence of workers and new provisions on in- state tuition rates for illegal immigrant children and children of guest workers. The package of bills doesn’t go as far as some would have liked and does far more than others might be comfortable with. In the end, this is very much a compromise package that would be much better with a federal immigration solution. We will be back on the Hill again very soon to hold hearings on HB 477, Government Records Amendments, which deals with access to public records. This has been a hot topic in the final week and the Legislature recognizes we need a little more time to find the appropriate balance on which records should be considered private. The Governor has pledged to call us back into a Special Session in June to make the appropriate changes to the law after the public hearings in the spring. If you have issues or concerns you think we ought to address, please feel free to contact me. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to represent you on Capitol Hill.
The following is from an article I submitted to the Spectrum newspaper in March of 2011. One of the questions I’m often asked by constituents and in particular school children, is how I decide which bills to vote for and which bills to vote against. It can be a somewhat complicated question to answer. Nearly 1,000 bills are filed for consideration each session. Obviously this number represents a lot of issues covering a wide variety of topics that affect many, many people. The ancient Greeks had a system of democracy where every male citizen had the opportunity to cast votes for himself in the assembly. Our system is a set up to be a representative republic where we select one person to speak and vote on behalf of a set number of people. This system has its challenges. Whereas an ancient Greek male citizen had only his own views to consider when voting, your legislators must weigh the views of ten of thousands when casting ballots. Due to the large number of bills and the complexity of some of the issues, legislators employ a wide range of strategies when deciding how to vote. One that I and my southern Utah colleagues employ is to send out a survey to constituents asking questions about the hot issues expected to come before the Legislature. We forecast what we think will be the most pressing issues. For instance in our survey this year, we asked for feedback on budgets items and possible budget cuts, liquor licenses, and immigration reform just to name a few items. Obviously we received a wide variety of responses, but the surveys show how the majority of our constituents feel on a particular issue and can guide our vote on specific bills. Another tool we use when deciding how to vote is our campaign platform and issues that might have been debated during the course of the campaign. While campaigning, we talk about our views and the issues we will and will not support if elected. A winning candidate can reasonably assume that he or she won because the majority of the voters agreed with his or her views on public policy and that platform can then serve as a measuring stick on how to vote. During the session, we do our best to communicate with our constituents and let them know what issues are coming up that will affect our communities. We get lots of emails and phone calls from people that want us to vote for or against a certain issue and those contacts, particularly from our own constituents, are very persuasive. Sometimes, however, an issue will come up where the constituency is evenly divided or the issue hits so quickly that there isn’t time for feedback. Sometimes the facts change with an amendment to a bill or issues come up that make it reasonable to vote differently than we might otherwise have done. In those cases, legislators have to rely on their instincts for what is the best policy call. We take very seriously our charge to represent you and reflect the values and beliefs of our communities. Don’t be afraid to reach out and let your legislators know how you feel about the issues of the day. We can’t represent you well if we don’t know your views.
Back to Work: the 2011 Session Begins A New Year, and a new session. The Legislature is back in session and hard at work building a balanced budget for the new fiscal year. We will also consider the merits of 1,000 bills that have been filed for consideration. The past two sessions were monopolized by difficult budget discussions, which made the sessions, seem longer and harder than others in recent memory. Thankfully the recession’s grip has begun to weaken and we are starting to see signs of economic growth. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we aren’t quiet out of the tunnel yet. Federal stimulus funds and other one- time revenue sources will dry up effective June 30, 2011. This leaves the State $313 million short of meeting our current commitments when the new fiscal year starts on July 1, 2011. In addition to these shortfalls, we have some areas of the budget with dramatically growing needs like public education, higher education, and Medicaid enrollment growth and Medicaid expansion due to additional federal requirements passed in last year’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The State still has approximately $210 million in our Rainy Day Fund, but obviously even if we utilized every penny in the fund, we would still fall short by $103 million dollars and the fund would be completely depleted. Given the stark realities of the budget numbers, it is likely further budget cuts will be necessary. Base budgets presented last week (the building blocks of our budget process) required each and every department to prepare for a 7% budget cut. This isn’t the final budget, but it helps us know what we have to work with when the final revenue estimates are presented to the Legislature in late February. My Democratic colleagues in the Legislature have floated the idea of running a deficit and suggest two possible tax increases as alternatives to budget cuts. To this proposal I say, “haven’t we learned from the folly of living beyond our means and using credit for on-going expenses?” The pain of budget cutting over the past two years has impressed upon me a very important lesson. Budgets MUST balance, on-going expenses and on-going revenue sources must be paired and credit should be used sparingly. Cutting budgets is hard, painful and dirty work; I do not relish the task. During the past two years, I have listened to many passionate pleas to fund various programs. Those of us in the hot seat forced to reconcile financial realities with imploring faces find few friends during budget time. The easy way out is to punt the hard decisions away to some future Legislature and to borrow money to keep everyone happy. It is a slippery slope and one need look no further than Congress to see that following the path of least budget resistance leads to an ocean of red ink. It might not be the politically popular choice, but I believe we need to live within our means. If our revenue growth doesn’t match budget shortfalls, then I believe we need to trim our expenses. Rainy day funds ought to be used judiciously since they are finite and non- renewing. We spent over half of the rainy day fund last year and have found it is still raining a year later. Who is to say we won’t still be drizzling next year or the year after? Not to mention further expenditures from the fund could jeopardize our AAA bond rating. We should use it only as a last resort in my view. In future articles and newsletters I will continue to keep you up to date on the budget process and critical bills being considered by the Legislature. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to represent you at the Legislature. If you have questions or concerns about any issue before the Legislature, please feel free to contact me.
Below is an article I submitted to the Spectrum newspaper on a bill I'm working on. Slow down and move over! No, this isn’t something I’ve been yelling at my grandkids, it is the slogan that goes along with a bill I am running to help protect our public safety personnel. We all know that serving in law enforcement is dangerous work. After all these are the brave folks that often stand directly between the bad guys and us. However, their work shouldn’t be dangerous because of people driving carelessly. Just thirty-seven days into the New Year and eight highway patrol troopers have been injuries in accidents on our highways. At this pace we will quickly eclipse the twenty-one accidents that occurred in 2010! This is not a record we should be interested in breaking. State troopers play a critical role in keeping the public safe on our highways, but only if we do our job as driver by keeping them out of harm’s way. The recent increase in troopers being hit is alarming and clearly indicative of how dangerous the job is for these troopers who willingly and admirably serve. Current state law requires that motorist pull over to let emergency vehicles pass or to slow down and yield space to emergency vehicles stopped on the side of the road with lights flashing. Unfortunately too few people are following the law and our troopers are paying the price. The highway patrol was taken steps to provide troopers with better safety training and techniques, but we as drivers need to do our part too. Some people move over, but few slow down. Please, slow down immediately as soon as you see a trooper or emergency vehicle. Sometimes in order to convince people that you are serious about the need for a certain change of behavior it is necessary to put in place some stiff penalties. My bill will increase the penalties for the failure by a driver to slow down and move over and require completion of a four-hour defensive driving class for anyone that receives a citation. We have more cars on Utah road today than ever before, yet even with increased traffic we have about the same number of trooper as we did in the 1980’s. It is more important than ever that we protect our troopers because we don’t have any to spare. Not to mention the personal pain and suffering experienced by the injured troopers. Trooper Rachel Zubal, who joined me in a press conference on the bill this week, endured three surgeries and nine months of rehab before she could return to work after being hit on I-15 in 2010. Sadder still are the accidents that result in deaths like that of Sevier County Deputy Aguilar who died in a tragic accident on an I-70 bridge last year. Many of the accidents that have occurred so far this year are a result of winter weather and drivers going too fast for conditions. We need our troopers and emergency personnel to stay alive, to stay safe and to continue providing the quality public safety service so you and I can make it home to our loved ones at night. As drivers, let's help them so they can help us when that time comes.