Saturday, September 27, 2014

Moving the State Prison To Weber County?

Photo Courtesy The Salt Lake Tribute

During our most recent interim legislative meeting, we received an update on the the Draper Prison relocation process.  We were told that 25 sites have been selected throughout the state for vetting based on a specific set of criteria.  Out of curiosity, I inquired if Weber County was on the "Top 25" list and I was told that it was.

So, could the State Prison end up in Weber County?  To answer this question we have to dig into the moving parts of the process.  First, lets discuss the criteria that PRADA (the agency tapped to vet the proposition of a new prison) is using to determine the best site.  The agency is ranking sites based on a score of 100 possible points with points being given for the following characteristics:

Proximity to Society and Amenities - 35 Points (the closer the prison is to services the higher the ranking)

Community Support - 15 Points

Land Quality and Environmental Impact - 15 Points

Infrastructure - 15 Points

Community Services - 10 Points

Development Costs - 10 Points

We were not versed in the exact way points would be assigned, but this helps give us an idea of the general criteria. 

Obviously, Weber County scores well on proximity to amenities.  It would score high in that category.  But, when it comes to the Community Support issue, the discussion becomes interesting.  While some local governments scoff at the idea of hosting a prison, others are contending for the prison to come to them because it is a source of stable jobs.  Thus, these communities are competing with each other in the form of economic incentives to attract the prison to their location.  In talking to those informed on this issue in Weber County, the county is not really interested in participating in this bidding war.  Combined with the ill-will expressed by most residents of Weber County regarding the idea of bringing the prison here, local leaders would be hard pressed to give away precious taxpayer money while simultaneously poking those taxpayers in the eye with a stick.  The proposition appears to be a non-starter as local leaders look to avoid displeasing the electorate.

Another area Weber County scores low on is land quality.  The only place a prison could be built without using eminent domain to acquire farm land would be in the extreme western portion of the county near the lake.  That land has a water table that is nearly above ground.  The swampy land is just too difficult to build on without incurring a tremendous expense.  The water table issue also means that our environmental impact may be larger than is desired due to its proximity to wildlife habitat. Finally, we have development costs and community services which are also impacted due to the swamp lands problem.

So, when factoring all these things together, Weber County scores pretty low on the dial.  I am told that due to this, it has not made it to the Top 10 of potential sites.  But, given our citizen's general unease with the proposition, that may just be for the better.         

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Urban Metamorphosis: Stripping Thorns from Utah's Blossoming Rose

I recently finished reading John Kenneth Galbraith's book The Nature of Mass Poverty.  It is a fascinating read on the dynamics at play that keep people trapped in the poverty cycle.  While the book was specifically addressing the rural poor in other countries, some of the concepts discussed apply to our own urban populations who struggle to improve their wages and standard of living.

One concept discussed in the book was the idea of accommodation.  When enough poor people are congregated in an area together, poverty is reinforced in that community. The life experiences and culture of that population are limited to their immediate surroundings.  Thus, the opportunities that would help lift them out of poverty are often out of view or go unrecognized when present due to a lifetime of experiences and culture that focus on survival rather than economic improvement.

Often, when the poor are living extremely close to the edge of daily survival, the risks associated with changing their life's circumstances for the better are perceived as being very high.  So, when opportunities do arise and are recognized, they are rejected due to the perceived risk.  We see this in folks who cannot take time away from work to go to school.  The schooling would increase their standard of living in the future but may threaten to put them out on the street today.  Such hard decisions are made everyday in poorer communities; and thus, the poor communities stay poor.  

I live in an area of Ogden that has a high proportion of families living in poverty.  I see the culture that has kept generations of families in bondage to the poverty cycle.  This has been a major concern of mine.  As Ogden blossoms as a rose and our community (along with others) continues to beautify and rise from obscurity, what is to be done to lift the urban poor who live among us?  The topic deserves our attention.

It shouldn't surprise us that motivation is one of the key factors to be affected when improving the standard of living of a poor people.  Mr. Galbraith quizzes us on this concept in his book:

Motivation, like so much else, is subject to conditioning by its culture.  If forces, great or overwhelming, act to inhibit or exclude economic improvement, will not people - some, if not all - abandon the struggle?                 
Indeed, he is correct.  What kind of forces could overwhelm economic improvement?  In urban centers, many of the social ills like addiction, violence, and a lack of proper education provide sufficient road blocks to improvement.  These overwhelming forces thus cause the afflicted community to surrender.  Mr. Galbraith continues:

People do not strive, generation after generation...against circumstances that are so constituted as to defeat them.  They accept.  Nor is such acceptance a sign of weakness of character.  Rather, it is a profoundly rational response.  Given the formidable hold of the equilibrium of poverty within which they live, accommodation is the optimal solution.    
Why would we expect people to fight what they think they can't change?  Yet, there are solutions to the problems.  The very first thing that needs to be done is to open the minds of the people to the proposition that life can be better than it is today.  In many parts of the world, this new motivation to improve has been spurred by trauma as poor people were displaced by persecution, wars, and natural disasters.  Obviously, using those as policy tools is repugnant.  Yet, we still have a significant and highly effective tool at our disposal.  Education is the key.

In light of this, Ogden School District has recently made a remarkable transformation in the results it delivers to its students.  For instance, Dee Elementary, where my daughters attended kindergarten, was the worst school in Utah as recently as 2011.  It had been in that unenviable spot for years.  Yet, Ogden School District leadership drafted a bold new plan to reinvent the district and the way it delivered an education to its students.  The results were profound as Dee Elementary launched from dead last in rankings to the middle of the pack of Utah schools in the space of just two years.        

As a member of the Multi-Cultural Commission, I connected Ogden School District with Latinos In Action to help establish a mentor program for hispanic youth.  This mentor system has created leadership opportunities for aspiring young people in the schools.  It has also created role models for the students that are mentored.  For those students participating in the program, college placement is 90%+ in a community that normally sees just a small percentage of its youth go to college.

These kinds of programs are helping people escape the poverty cycle in Ogden.  Showing people the opportunities that are available to them and then giving them a means to engage those opportunities are the key.

Yet, there is more we can do.  One of the aspects that holds Ogden's neighborhoods back from flourishing is the sheer volume of disadvantaged people.  Without more mentors and advantaged neighbors in close proximity to act as role models and provide opportunity for their less advantaged neighbors, the neighborhoods find themselves stuck in a status quo of impoverishment.  To overcome that inertia I will be making a proposal this next legislative session to address this problem and provide some affordable and creative solutions.

May we continue to work to break the cycle of poverty in our communities.  Through opening minds to the opportunities that are available; and, by providing the means to accept those opportunities, we build our neighborhoods and cities into better places.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Utah's Corrections Conundrum: Finding Better Solutions

During interim session in our Judiciary Committee, we heard a compelling presentation from the Pew Charitable Trusts regarding the state of Utah's corrections system.  We discussed how non-violent offenders (typically drug or property crimes) were receiving ever longer prison sentences for their crimes.

While on the face of it, it seems to make sense that people should pay for their crimes. Yet, at the same time, the corrections system itself is having the effect of making personal reform harder on those that are incarcerated.  Prison may lock up drug users, but it is poorly equipped today to break their addictions.

Interestingly, when door knocking my district while campaigning for office, I have often stumbled open felons who have shared their experience with me.  When I asked them what could be done to improve the system and promote better outcomes, almost unanimously, these folks have expressed the need for more drug treatment within our prisons.  I agreed with that sentiment then and it appears today we now have the data to support shifting our policy towards better treatment.

Here is the presentation we received during our committee:

As you can see, there are a lot of charts and information to digest. The bottom line is that our prison population is increasing at a rate faster than population growth.  The data suggests that our current policies are driving this increase.

Incarceration is just one part of our corrections system.  Yet, it seems to be the tool that is most readily relied upon.  I believe that there could be better results if we improved our efforts to curb addiction and address mental health issues among our inmate population.  I look forward to discussing this issue more with our Judiciary Committee as we move along toward the next General Session.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Uninequality: 10th Circuit Ruling on Same Sex Marriage

The 10th Circuit has sustained the Federal District Court's overturning of Utah's same-sex marriage ban.  Here is the court's written opinion.

In the Court's words:

We hold that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right to marry, establish a family, raise children, and enjoy the full protection of a state’s marital laws. A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union.

Why are we here?   According to the plaintiffs:

Being excluded from the institution of marriage has caused Kitchen and Sbeity to undertake a burdensome process of drawing up wills and other legal documents to enable them to make important decisions for each other. Even with these protections, however, the couple cannot access various benefits of marriage, including the ability to file joint state tax returns and hold marital property. Sbeity also states that the legal documents the couple have obtained “do not and cannot provide the dignity, respect, and esteem” of marriage. The inability to “dignify [his] relationship” though marriage, Kitchen explains, communicates to him that his relationship with Sbeity is unworthy of “respect, equal treatment, and social recognition.”

I support Utah's appeal of this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The law cannot compel or conjure "dignity, respect, and esteem" in an individual.  These are earned attributes that transcend legal constructs.  I am afraid the plaintiffs will be disappointed in their expectations and unfulfilled by the results if the ban is ultimately overturned at the Supreme Court.

Since a society founded on the freedom of conscience cannot guarantee these earned characteristics to individuals, will the suppression of that freedom be next?  Will the honest voices of disapproval be silenced and marginalized?  Will an inquisition attempt to purge a dissenting ethos from our culture?

We shall see.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Peak Prosperity Video: Next 20 Years Like Nothing We've Ever Seen

Chris Martenson, the author of this video, came to our legislative interim meetings last year to discuss his research findings.  His vision of the future is not as bright and rosy as we would like, but the research he has done is sound.  With our economy dependent on cheap natural resources and energy, we are about to see fundamental changes in how things function.  This video is a must see for policy makers and anyone interested in financial health and wealth.  

Very good information.  I hope you found this video illuminating.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Living Through Tyranny and The Reformer's Burden

As we watch our nation's influence in the world ebb, our citizens' dependency on government programs escalate, and our economic engine become mired in crony capitalism, it would not be out of the question for us to hear calls for reform.  In fact, it seems the voices calling for a 'reset' in Washington have only grown louder over the past decade as these unmistakable markers of decline become more obvious and prevalent by the month.  Yet, despite the rhetoric and the fervor, we have not seen a man rise to wield the power necessary to implement the much desired reforms.  

To shed light on this conspicuous absence, it may be helpful to look to a historical example. For that, let us turn to Edward Gibbon's account of ancient Rome. On March 17, 180A.D. Marcus Aurelius, the great benevolent philosopher emperor died.  In his stead, he conveyed the throne to his son Commodus who came to power at a time when Rome had vanquished all its foreign enemies and enjoyed peace and prosperity throughout the empire.

Bust of Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius
Neverthless, Commodus was not fortunate enough to inherit his fathers virtues.  He established a harem of 300 concubines in his palace.  He taxed the people to support a large palace staff and regular entertainments.  His paranoia and jealousy lead to the senseless slaughter of hundreds of senators and thousands of their kin.  His ministers enriched themselves by selling justice to the highest bidder.  In short, his reign brought sorrow to the people and disgrace to the throne.

After Commodus executed several iterations of his ministers to appease the riotous rebellion of the public, his lastly appointed ministers realized that their lives would soon to be next.  So, in an act of palace intrigue, Commodus was poisoned by one of his servants and subsequently strangled to death.  This act of self preservation ended the miserable tyranny of his 15-year reign.

Without an heir apparent, who would replace Commodus?  The Praetorian Guard which quartered in the city would have to support or even make the the choice of Emperor.  Emperors for generations had secured the loyalty of the military by making lavish donations to the troops.  Such donations and urban living had slowly softened the military's preparation and discipline.  Nevertheless, their support was absolutely necessary if an Emperor was to rule with authority.

"The vigor of the soldiers instead of being confirmed by the severe discipline of camps, melted away in the luxury of cities.  The excessive increase of their pay and donatives exhausted the state to enrich the military order, whose modesty in peace, and service in war, is best secured by an honorable poverty."

Fortunately, a man of virtue was sought to fill the vacancy on the throne.  Pertinax, a noble Senator and a man respected for his temperance and wisdom, was solicited to ascend to that great station.  He hesitated at first, believing the news of Commodus death to be a ploy to accuse him of treason.  But, when his death was confirmed, he agreed to assume the royal garments and the Senate celebrated and the Preatorian's ratified the ascension.  

Bust of Pertinax
Thus, with an intelligent and principled man acting as sovereign of the civilized world, he began to reverse the corruption that had infused itself into the body of government and that had been a burden to so much of the Empire during the reign of Commodus.  His first acts were to reduce the palace expenses by half.  The ostentatious living of his predecessor was undone for a simple and austere approach.  He auctioned off the imperial chariots, silks, and attendant luxuries. Pertinax is described as saying to the Senate:

"That he was better satisfied to administer a poor republic with innocence, than to acquire riches by the ways of tyranny and dishonor."  

Further, he forced the resignation of Commodus' imperial ministers and confiscated a portion of their wealth which they had accumulated through graft.  He reduced the taxes on the people and he engaged in economic development by deferring taxes on those willing to cultivate agriculture on vacant land.  These reforms were immediate and effective.  The people began to increase in industry and prosperity.

Yet, there was one more reform which Pertinax pursued, and that was to invigorate the military spirit and discipline of the Praetorian Guard.  He reduced their pay, and increased their military rigor.  Unfortunately, these changes agitated the sentiments of the soldiers who had become accustomed to luxury.  One day, 300 soldiers rallied in nearby barracks and marched toward the Imperial Palace.  With the conspiracy of old domestic servants and the palace guards, the gates were thrown open to them.  Gibbon gives us an account of the encounter:

"On the news of their approach, Pertinax, disdaining either flight or concealment, advanced to meet his assassins; and recalled to their minds his own innocence, and the sanctity of their recent oath. For a few moments they stood in silent suspense, ashamed of their atrocious design, and awed by the venerable aspect and majestic firmness of their sovereign, till at length, the despair of pardon reviving their fury, a barbarian of the country of Tongress leveled the first blow against Pertinax, who was instantly dispatched with a multitude of wounds. His head, separated from his body, and placed on a lance, was carried in triumph to the Praetorian camp, in the sight of a mournful and indignant people."
Thus, just 86 days into his reign, Pertinax's life came to an abrupt end. Gibbon gives us some insight into the discontent his reforms conjured in the body of government:

"A hasty zeal to reform the corrupted state, accompanied with less prudence than might have been expected from the years and experience of Pertinax, proved fatal to himself and to his country. His honest indiscretion united against him the servile crowd, who found their private benefit in the public disorders, and who preferred the favor of a tyrant to the inexorable equality of the laws."
So, we see the challenge that any reformer faces when a class of people are enriched by the 'disorders' of the public.  The root of the problem lies in man's honest desire to promote his own self interest.  And thus, when man is placed in a station that his self-interest is gratified by the abuse or subversion of the self-interest of the public, a dangerous and difficult situation arises.  Such circumstances are difficult to correct:

"But if we attentively reflect  how much swifter is the progress of corruption than its cure, and if we remember that the years abandoned to public disorders exceeded the months allotted to the martial reign of Aurilian, we must confess that a few short intervals of peace were insufficient for the arduous work of reformation."  

Any government that has deviated from its founding principles requires an infusion of vigor and discipline to be restored to former greatness.  These reforms must be applied methodically, consistently, and for an extended period of time if they are to be successful.  Importantly, in a democratic society, the people must also sustain their support of such efforts.

The danger that America finds itself in today is that, like the Praetorian Guard who ratified the selected Emperor, the electorate is increasingly benefited by 'donatives' (e.g. transfer payments) from the government they elect.  As that number grows, and as each voter casts their ballot with honest self-interest in mind, at some point the political choice will be dictated by which candidate promises the largest 'donatives' or the least interference with them.

As if a perverse caricature of this phenomena, when we follow the story after Pertinax's death, we discover that the Praetorian Guard brazenly seized the Imperial Throne and auctioned it off to the highest bidder.

This is a poignant and important lesson for us to learn.  So, as the clouds grow and the lights threaten to dim on the era of American Greatness, may we rediscover our former selves and find the vigor, the courage, and the tenacity to endure the reforms that are so desperately needed in our day.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

WSU Tracy Hall Science Building Groundbreaking

For the past several years, Weber State University has been petitioning the State for funds to build a new science building.  I had an opportunity to tour the facility back and I felt the urgency that they did in the matter.  The current science building I feel was used as the inspiration for the popular video game Half Life.

Screenshot from Half Life

Old WSU Science Building Classroom

The current building is in a very sad state of repair.  Its windowless corridors are also depressing.  You can read more about that here

Fortunately, this past Legislative Session, the new Tracy Hall was funded and we had an opportunity to participate in the ground breaking. 

Rendering of New WSU Science Building Under Construction

Governor Herbert and Weber State University President Charles Wight celebrate Tracy Hall Groundbreaking

WSU President Charles Wight has to be one of the most interesting persons in his line of work.  Here he is demonstrating the high explosive reaction of hydrogen and oxygen to the audience of dignitaries:

WSU's science and engineering programs are growing.  We look forward to the benefits our community will receive from educating even more students in important sciences.