Sunday, October 9, 2016

Proud to Serve the People of Washington County

2016 Interim: Drones & Wildfires

You know the saying, “curiosity killed the cat”? We might want to update the saying a bit to “drone curiosity killed the taxpayer.” This past week, the Utah Legislature was called into a Special Session to increase the penalties for illegal drone use over wildfires and to give law enforcement the ability to neutralize the drones.  Illegal drone use forced the grounding of fire fighting air efforts an unbelievable 5 separate times during the battle over the Saddle Fire. Thank goodness these selfish explorations by drone lookie-loos only cost money and not lives.  One would think that it would be common sense to leave firefighters alone to do their jobs (if not offer support), but in an age fueled by “likes” and the latest YouTube video, apparently it is not enough to say there will be fines and penalties. While I will gladly support giving law enforcement the power to neutralize drones that stand in the way of protecting lives and property, it saddens me that they will have to subtract time from their primary focus to neutralize drones! 

To date the fire fighting efforts for the Saddle Fire have totaled nearly $13.7 million. This isn’t monopoly money, this is OUR money. This is money collected in taxes that could go to any number of collective needs and projects.  I want firefighters to have all the funds necessary to do their job, but one can’t help but wonder that if efforts hadn’t unnecessarily stalled 5 times, would that price tag be lower?  Would days or weeks have been shaved off the timeline to containment?  Would it have taken less gallons of water if fire fighters could have kept up a relentless counter offense with all the tools at their disposal? We may never know the true dollar amounts of what “drone curiosity” cost us.

The money, resources, and people it takes to fight a fire like this are staggering. At the peak of the blaze, nearly 675 fire fighters were engaged in 24/7 operations. Nearly 490,000 gallons of water and 392,000 gallons of flame retardant have been used on this fire. 2,300 acres of forest habitat is burned to a crisp and the fire came within 0.5 mile of homes and property. My thanks and gratitude goes out to our firefighters; brave men and women that answered the call to protect a beautiful mountain valley community. I will gladly help secure the funding and tools so they can do this difficult and hazardous job, including giving them the means to remove illegal drones from the skies

Drones can be fun, useful, and they can do jobs that would be dangerous for a person to do. But they can also be costly. The person or persons that decided their own voyeuristic needs were more important than firefighter safety or the economic pressure on taxpayers needs to be held responsible.  I truly hope the person that flew the drone over the Saddle Fire is caught and punished, but in the meantime, I will rest easier knowing firefighters and law enforcement can do their jobs.    

2016 Session: Police & Body Camera Update

As the Chairman of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice committee, one of the important issues my committee is addressing in legislation this year is the regulation of the use of body cameras worn by police officers. This new and emerging law enforcement tool is being adopted and implemented in many jurisdictions across the state. However, right now the regulation of when to use them, how to retain the recordings, and what privacy standards to use is piecemeal because we lack a an overarching state law on the issue. Camera recordings are an important part of the justice system.

I believe there are some areas where we want consistent and uniform policy throughout the state so that each officer and citizen has the same expectations of how the recordings will be treated and used in criminal or other proceedings.  Not all recording are critical to save for long periods of time. For instance, recording that fall in the critical incident category should be saved for a longer amount of time than recordings of inconsequential interactions.  However, once we set the timelines for each category of recording, those category times should be consistent statewide.  Also, a universal policy on how to treat any recordings that contain nudity, gore or children is a must. Body cameras are an important tool for a variety of reasons, but if used incorrectly the tool could have damaging effects. Privacy of citizens is important and I believe we should error on the side of marking the recordings private.

There are two different bills that have been proposed to set these universal laws. The first, HB 300 Body-Worn Cameras for Law Enforcement by Rep. Dan McCay sets the laws for body cameras in state statute including items like when to turn the camera off and on, how to announce a camera is in use, and how to display the camera.  The bill would give some leeway to local community to set some regulations as well. The second bill, SB 94 Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras by Sen. Dan Thatcher would designate the Peace Officer Standards and Training Division (POST) as the entity to establish and implement statewide guidelines for camera use, length of film retention, and standard implementation. The reasons why this sponsor feels designating POST as the entity with the statewide authority is because this is an area of new and emerging technology that might need updates or revisions sooner than the annual 45-day legislative session can accommodate. In addition, the sponsor believes that POST will have more expertise on what types of situations and realistic expectations a law enforcement officer with a camera is likely to encounter.

I am confident that as we debate these two bill and consider that best policy for Utahns, we will find the best way to enact these universal standards and ensure everyone has the same expectations for body cameras no matter where in the state they happen to live or travel.

2015 Interim: Changes for Dixie ATC

During the legislative session earlier this year, the southern Utah delegation was able to secure $31.9 million in state funding for the new Dixie Applied Technology College (DXATC). These funds will be combined with another $8 million from Washington County that will fully fund the construction of the new DXATC on the land formerly occupied by the St. George airport. Construction is expected to start at the beginning of January 2016. This will allow the DXATC to move all of their classroom and training facilities into one cohesive campus.  I am very excited about this new project and economic development potential this new facility will bring to southern Utah.

Some readers might be aware of the Governor’s Prosperity 2020 plan to advance educational investment and innovation. The goal of this plan is to raise the bar for students of all ages and ensure that 2/3 of all Utahns achieve postsecondary training by 2020.We need an educated and well-trained workforce to continue to propel Utah’s economic prosperity.  What some people might not know is that an important component of the plan to support postsecondary education are the Applied Technology Colleges (ATCs) located throughout the state. The certificates and 2-year degrees offered at the ATCs can launch well-paying careers not just jobs. Our high schools students can take classes for free at the ATC’s; receiving a certificate and high school diploma at the same time. The manufacturing industry has reported it has an intense need for advanced manufacturing workers like welders, machinists, and industrial productions specialists that can pay anywhere from $35,000 to $80,000 a year. It isn’t only the industrial sector that needs people with training from an ATC. The bio-life science sector needs laboratory technicians and medical records technicians and you can find that training at an ATC too.

Last year, the DXATC served 7,644 students on the current campus. That is the highest enrollment in the Utah ATC system and this is the third year in a row that DXATC has led with the highest enrollment. During the most recent school year 951 high school students took advantage of the free classes. The certificate programs have been growing and are up 64% over the previous year. With the new facility coming on-line soon, the DXATC will also be adding new programs and additional student capacity.

With the start of the school year, you might want to direct your high school aged children to look at the programs offered by the DXATC and how that might open doors to a future career or give them a jump start on a traditional college experience. It is also a very cost effective option for anyone that wants to continue their education with a cost of about $2/classroom hour in tuition for adults. Our new facility will offer state of the art facilities in the heart of St. George!

2015 Interim: Police & Body Cameras

Police procedure, body cameras, and how and when to implement camera use have been hot topics nationally for the past year.  Other states and cities have been flash points for the difficult infancy of body camera use. However, several southern Utah towns have been quietly working toward implementing the use of body cameras and their experience will inform the discussion and implementation as other law enforcement agencies throughout Utah purchase and deploy cameras.

While this technology and its impact on the public and law enforcement is very new, it clearly has an important role to play in our digital age.  Already there are anecdotal reports about how the presence of a camera modifies behaviors of both law enforcement and the public in de-escalating tense situations.  Like all new technologies, at first its presence can be very disruptive as one figures out how to best use the new tool.

This year I’m serving as the co-chair of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee with Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross).  We have decided that the issue of body camera use will be a topic our committee studies this year. My hope is that we can bring forward a consensus bill in the 2016 General Session that will provide statewide guidance for these cameras.  Issues like data storage and security, requests for footage by the media or other interested parties, direction for law enforcement offices on when to use cameras, and how to ensure privacy of citizens are just a few of the items I expect the committee to discuss.  We will be consulting with the law enforcement, attorneys on rules of evidence, and the public on how to best put this tool into use.

In our May committee meeting we heard many points of view from various legislators and interested parties about what items might be best as statewide, universal standards and other items that might be better decided at the local level where law enforcement agencies can vary widely by size, sophistication, and geographic territory.  One of the major items we must tackle is how to store the sheer volume of data the cameras will generate. It is true we are getting better and better at compressing data and making it more affordable to store, but the cameras could generate several terabytes a week of data that will compound based on how long we require the records be kept and how many cameras an agency has in the field. That could get very expensive for a moderately sized police department quickly.

As we continue to study the issue over the coming months, I’m looking forward to first hand reports from the departments in southern Utah that have cameras and from the public on the results they see or the concerns they want addressed. We in southern Utah will have a unique ability to shape this policy and technology. Please be part of the discussion this summer and provide us your feedback for the benefit of the entire state.

2015 Session: Transportation Funding

It might seem odd for a guy that makes his living by trucking to support an increase to the gas tax.  After all, fuel costs are the second highest expense of doing business, after labor, in my industry.  I spend quite a bit of time considering the conditions of roads and routes that my trucks will be taking to deliver goods. In addition, I have served on the Transportation Interim Committee for several years, which for the past several interim cycles has heard report after report about the conditions of bridges, shortfalls in transportation funding and particular needs at the local level.

Transportation is the backbone of our economy and every Utahn benefits from a system that effectively and reliably moves good and services. However, this isn’t a system that we just build once and can ignore.  Utah’s population is expected to double in the next 35 years, which means more need for roads as an increased number of people, goods, and services are traveling.

The gas tax is our primary funding source for transportation in the state of Utah. The tax is at a fixed rate, 24.5 cents per gallon, which means that as our vehicles have become more fuel efficient, we collect less in revenue. The last time we raised the rate was in 1997. Since that rate increase, construction costs have increased nearly 300% while the purchasing power of the gas tax has declined by 48%. Local governments in particular struggle to meet their transportation needs because their share of the gas tax covers less than half of their actual costs.

We have clearly put off for a very long time considering an increase to the gas tax or other transportation related fees. The State has gotten by with supplementing transportation from the general fund as have locals, but that is just a band-aid and not a real solution. I think it is time we truly consider a change to how we assess and manage this tax and perhaps even consider an increase in the rate. There are a few bills offering different solutions this year. One originating in the Senate offers a straightforward increase in the gas tax from 24.5 cents to 34.5 cents to make up the lost purchasing power. The other proposal originating in the House would change the cents per gallon tax to a percentage based tax with floors and ceiling to ensure the rate wouldn’t spike or drop. This approach means that the collection of funds will rise with the price of fuel rather than consumption.

I think both proposals have merit, but the more important thing in my mind is that we don’t allow another year to pass without addressing the problem. We know we have a funding problem and to not find a solution is irresponsible public policy.