Sunday, May 17, 2015

Rise of the Magyar: Hungary's Aspiring Role in Middle Europe


Overlooking the Danube River and Parliament from the Presidential Palace.

I recently returned from a trip abroad hosted by the American Council of Young Political Leaders.  It is a State Department funded program that promotes international understanding and the exchange of ideas among the rising generation of political figures.  For our exchange, a significant portion of our trip was spent in Hungary, known as Magyar, in the local tongue.

A 1000 Year Summary of Hungarian History

Hungary is a nation with a long and proud history.  The Magyar tribe conquered and settled the Carpathian basin around 896 AD.  The pagan tribe acquiesced to Christianity under the zealous sword of its quick tempered leader Gejza in the 900's.  Following Gejza's death, his son Stephen was coronated as the first monarch of Hungary on Christmas Day 1000 AD.   In the 1200's, Mongols invaded the area and killed or deported as slaves one million Hungarians (1/3rd of the population).  This experience lead to the widespread construction of stone castles for defense.  In the 1500's, Ottoman Turks swept the country with 100,000 troops.  Half of Hungary was defeated and dominated by the Turks for 150 years.  Following the defeat, the other half of the country was absorbed into Habsburg dominions with Transylvania breaking off as an independent state.

Overlooking the town center of Eger, Hungary from the top of Eger Castle.

After the Turks were pushed out of the country, nearly all of Hungary was placed under rule of the Habsburgs.  However, oppressive rule lead to an independence revolution in 1848 and ultimately lead to the a dual monarchy with Budapest becoming the second capitol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  This event opened the door for the construction of the beautiful cityscape we see today in Budapest.

Entering the Pest side of Budapest from Liberty Bridge.

Hungary was an ally of Germany in World War I and their defeat meant the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  It also meant the subdivision of its lands and the country was winnowed from a population of 20 million to a territory of just 8 million.  This arbitrary map drawing means that millions of Hungarians today live outside of Hungary's borders in neighboring countries.

Hungary also allied with Germany in WWII but was occupied as an untrustworthy ally.  German occupation in the last year of the war meant the extermination of most of it's Jewish population.  However, unlike other European states where Jewry suffered complete extermination, there remains in Budapest an indigenous population of Jews that survived the war.

Monuments memorializing the terror of Nazi and Communist occupation of Hungary.

Following WWII, Russian tanks rolled into Hungary and occupied the country.  The people rose up against communist cruelty in a 1956 revolution, but the revolution was crushed with brute force by the Soviets.  Yet, out of necessity, the Soviets loosened their tight grip to give Hungarian more freedom than was experienced in other countries occupied by the Soviets.  Ultimately, the anti-communist movement rose, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the last Russian soldier left Hungary in the early 1990s.

Hungary Today

Today Hungary is a democracy populated by several political parties.  The governing party is the Fidesz which is conservative in its ideology and is populated by the Founding Fathers of the post-communist era.  We met with many Fidesz members of parliament and the ministers of the cabinet.  We also met with the Socialist Party (old communists), the Christian Democrat People's Party (center-left), and a 'Green' Party member.  The President of Hungary is a controversial figure who often makes remarks that offend the sensibilities of the European Union and United States.

The Legislative Chamber of Parliament in Budapest.

Given it's history, Hungary finds itself in a precarious position.  A tiny country of 10 million people, it is unluckily situated between the aggressive Russian bear and the dominating German eagle.  One of our hosts shared the adage: The Germans and the Russians kill each other; and when they are not, they kill everyone else.  Such experience underscores all of Hungarian geopolitics in the region.  They are in an existential struggle for survival in a dangerous world.  This struggle means making some unlikely alliances.  For instance, Hungary flirts with Russia because Russia controls 80% of its energy supply.  It is compelled to interact with its former oppressor out of economic necessity.  Such circumstances mean that its EU and US partners are not very satisfied with Hungary's positions in regards to Russia.  While most Western Nations are boycotting or sanctioning current Russian aggression, Hungary has taken a less stern position.

Hungary also sees itself as a budding force in the region.  In one of our conversations, it was explained to us that, outside of Germany, Europe seems to lack strong leadership from other countries.  They also envision a new 'Middle Europe' that includes Hungary as a prominent voice.  The terms 'Eastern' and 'Central' have become pejorative terms in European parlance.  Thus, a rebranding of the region appears to be taking place as Hungary works to position itself in a place of strength.

Symbolic Eagle and Gate at the Presidential Palace in Budapest.

This quest for self-determination, independence, and relevance hearkens back to its conquest of the Carpathian valley, its overthrow of the Turks, its rebellion against the Habsburgs, and its revulsion against Soviet Communism.

This indomitable attitude also comes with a backdrop of strong nationalistic and patriarchal perspectives in Hungarian culture.  Indeed, one of the local folks we met humorously quipped: "Welcome to our racist, xenophobic, chauvinistic country!"  The Gypsie, or Roma, populations in Hungary are held in low esteem by ethnic Hungarians.  High poverty and low education make this an entrenched class that requires enormous public resources.  Currently the government is working on education efforts to break the cycle of poverty that has pervaded this group for decades.  The ethnic Hungarians are resentful of the social woes afflicting the Gypsies but see no other humane way of dealing with the problem.

Paintings commemorating the reconciliation between the Monarchy and Parliament.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the role of women in society, Hungarian culture, in my opinion, has missed the mark.  Women are treated as subservient to men in the public sphere.  During one of our meetings with a top official, our host asked that the women in our delegation sit on either side of him while the men sat across from him at the table.  The men of our delegation conversed with our host while the women in our delegation remained silent.  From our delegation's perspective, it appeared our seating arrangement meant that our host intended to only discuss matters with the men while being adorned with women on either side.

The role of women is also illustrated in cultural icons.  In the Presidential Palace there stands two female statues.  On one side is the representation of an innocent virgin with her eyes downcast who is walking into the woods.  On the other side is a the voluptuous representation of this girl emerged from the woods no longer a virgin but as a 'full' women.

Later, I inquired again as to the meaning since I thought something might have been lost in translation to English.  I asked about the meaning of the girl emerging from the woods as a full woman.  Did it mean that she had reached her child bearing years and represented the figure of potential motherhood and the future hope for Hungarian posterity?  Or, was this simply the glorification of a woman loosing her virtue? My hosts clarified that it represented a woman being able to enjoy and provide for all the comforts that a grown woman can provide her male counterparts.  In this case, apparently, as an object of sexual gratification and desire.

Such a symbolic perspective happens to show up in Hungarian demographics.  With a birthrate among the lowest anywhere in the world, ethnic Hungarians' focus on sexual comfort over reproduction has put their population into decline.  Without a change in course, in the next three decades there will be few Hungarians left to keep the lights on in the country.

Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest.

Nevertheless, this demographic reality combined with an ethos of independence may be spurring the Hungarians to stand up and fight against fading into oblivion.  There is solidarity in the country for their expatriated countrymen in neighboring lands.  They are very concerned about their border Ukraine and Russian aggression toward neighbors who were former members of the Soviet Union.  Since every crises brings opportunity, the Hungarians seem to view current world events as their moment to assert their voice and rise as a regional power.  Their current President often expresses strong nationalistic rhetoric with visions of a resurgent Hungary.  A people with an eye toward the future have hope.  A people with hope in the future have children.  

Whether Hungary is successful in its effort to obtain and project regional power remains to be seen.  In the meantime, expect more geopolitical intrigue as Russian aggression becomes more blatant and Hungarian resolve intensifies.  The stakes are high for this small but potent country.  If it plays its diplomatic cards right, and also starts breeding, it may just achieve what it is seeking.                                      


  

              

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Church, The State, and Anti-Discrimination



The Legislature in this most recent session dealt with some very weighty and substantial issues.  Interestingly, now that I am home, the one I hear about most is the Legislature's passage of SB296 which added legal protections to housing and employment law for the LGBT community.

When Amendment 3 to Utah's Constitution was overturned by a Federal Judge to allow for same-sex marriages to begin in the state, I wrote an editorial in the Standard Examiner explaining why I believed such a change in policy portended confusion for our legal system.  The response I received from a vocal minority was swift and vitriolic.  I was blasted as a bigot, as ignorant, or as the deceived believer in some imaginary divine being.  The pointed attacks highlighted the consequences of a polarizing culture war that has been waged in our country since the sexual revolution of the 1960's.

In this culture war, we have seen the traditional values that have dictated family governance and creation redefined.  We have witnessed the inversion of traditional gender roles, the view of children as liabilities instead of assets, and the devaluation of marriage as a meaningful institution.  In the most recent cultural battles, we have seen the push to equate same-sex relationships with those of heterosexual ones.

A significant proportion of Utah's population, like myself, belongs to the LDS faith which has historically been very conservative in its views toward traditional marriage and same-sex issues.  It seems perplexing to many that a faith which champions traditional family values would suddenly join arms with those in the LGBT camp to support a broad and seismic policy shift which on the surface seems to fly in the face of the traditional values it has supported.  So with these concerns in mind, let me share with you my experience and understanding dealing with church lobbyists, my own faith, and with the policy found in SB296 itself.

There were rumors on the Hill that a "deal" had been struck between the LDS Church and the LGBT community around the first few days of March.  On March 4th, a hasty press conference was called and L. Tom Perry along with D. Todd Christofferson, Apostles in the LDS Church, explicitly announced the Church's support of SB296.  Troy Williams, President of Equality Utah, was also present and announced his organization's support.  Meanwhile, House and Senate leadership and bill sponsors lined the wall behind the podium in support.

Interestingly, it wasn't until after the press conference that the words of the bill were released to the Legislature to read.  What I read I found quite dismaying.  The new definitions for "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" actually seemed to undefine them.  My immediate concern was that this would lead to litigation and more hand-wringing in the courts over tortured definitions.  Yet, also included in the bill were sweeping exemptions for religious institutions and their affiliates.  It was clear which parties were at the negotiating table when the bill was crafted.  I wondered what this meant for everyone else and questioned the necessity of such measures.

I polled the House Floor the day following the news conference to get a feel for where the bill sat in the minds of my colleagues.  At that time, 44 supported the bill, 14 were opposed (which included myself) and 16 were undecided.  The House had not been involved in any major discussions on this issue and none seemed to be on the horizon at that time.  So, I rounded up a half dozen of my colleagues who had questions and scheduled a meeting with the pair of church lobbyists that visit the Hill periodically.

Our meeting was very frank.  We each took turns asking questions about the substance of the bill and its implications.  The official answer was "The Church doctrine on moral conduct has not changed. But, the Church supports this bill and supports the principle of civic non-discrimination in housing and employment."  Near the end of our meeting, there was also an allusion to the fact that they believed this was the right bill at the right time and that they thought the culture wars would only get worse with time.  Yet, after an hour of serious discussion and questioning, I didn't come away from the meeting feeling much better.  That weekend I wrote my floor speech in opposition to the bill.

The bill then passed the Senate and a House standing committee early the following week.  On March 11 the bill was ready to be debated on the House Floor.  Early that morning, several of us met at an open Conservative Caucus meeting with a Senate sponsor of the bill.  After listening to praises of the bill, I asked the sponsor very directly: "Why this bill? Why now?"  These questions received a very intriguing response.

The Senator felt that the bill is just a piece on a bigger legal chessboard.  At the U.S. Supreme Court right now is a case on same-sex marriage that will determine whether it becomes legal across the United States.  According to the Senate sponsor, he believes there is a high likelihood that same-sex marriage will be made the law of the land.  The Court's ruling is to be announced in June.  If same-sex marriage is made the law of the land for all states, it is believed that the next legal move for LGBT activists will be to push for non-discrimination legislation in all 50 states.  The effort would likely be advanced through litigation in the courts just as the marriage agenda was advanced through the courts.  The Senate sponsor also indicated that he believes that the activist's efforts would likely succeed.  If they did, then non-discrimination laws would be forced upon the states through judicial decree without the input of the Legislature and room for negotiation.

So, with this unsavory legal scenario in mind, the bill sponsors felt that SB296 created enough religious exemptions that it was worth enacting non-discrimination policy now rather than having to roll the dice later on a court decree that likely wouldn't allow religious exemptions.  In essence, this bill attempts to back burn the front lines of a forest fire before the fire overruns and consumes all the forest.

While the explanation was illuminating, I was still unpersuaded by this argument. I spoke against the bill on the House Floor that evening because the process wasn't given proper time to work, I didn't like the vague definitions, and I am opposed to needlessly carving out new protected classes in our laws.  Nevertheless, the bill passed 65-10 and the Governor signed it the following day.


Ultimately, we will find out if this legal maneuvering will pay off.  The Court will rule in June on nationwide same-sex marriage.  Then watch to see how the issue of anti-discrimination is pursued in the various states.  Interestingly, even if we do have SB296 for now, there is nothing that would stop a Federal Judge from overturning it if he felt compelled to do so.  If a Federal Judge can overturn a Constitutional Amendment that was voted into law by the direct will of the people, then overturning a nuisance bill with religious exemptions shouldn't be that difficult either.

In summary, it appears the bills sponsors felt SB296 was better for religious freedoms than risking a tsunami of unfriendly court decrees coming in the future.  If they are correct, I pray for our future.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

General Session 2015 - Grand Finale



The sprint to the finish of this year's Session was full of drama and high stakes negotiations.

Vaping, Prostitutes, and Cock Fighting

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Sen. Gene Davis presents his bill enhancing penalties for cock fighting.
Our Law Enforcement Standing Committee heard testimony on three very interesting bills the final week of the Session. We heard a bill which regulated unsealed packages of E-cigarettes.  Our committee agreed that more needed to be done to keep addictive substances out of the hands of children.  We also heard a bill on prostitution that changed the law so that bartering was included in the definition of exchanging something of value for sex.  Finally, we heard a bill that elevated cock fighting to a felony. Interestingly, the 'cockers' who filled the room in protest claimed that cock fighting just doesn't happen in Utah.  Yet, they gave passionate testimony about the supposed virtues of cock fighting.  But, when pressed on whether they had ever participated in a cock fight in Utah, they suddenly couldn't recall ever attending or hearing of one occurring.  The committee saw through this and passed the bill to the House Floor for a vote.

Medicaid Expansion Drama

The debate over whether to enact Healthy Utah as the Governor and Senate wanted, or to enact a more sustainable model like Utah Cares as the House proposed, could not be resolved in the time we had in the session.

Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan spars with Minority Leader Brian King and Rep. Rebecca Chaves-Houck on Medicaid Expansion policy.

But that doesn't mean it was a milktoast debate. On the evening of March 5th, the minority party attempted to lift the failed Healthy Utah bill from the committee which voted it down and place it on the Floor for debate.  Such a motion could only be successful with majority approval of the body.  The motion failed but the minority party was able to put pressure on majority party colleagues by placing them on the record with their vote.  Many of these folks are in swing districts.  Obviously, the majority didn't appreciate this political flanking.

The votes on the motion to lift the dead Healthy Utah bill from committee to the Floor for debate. 
Then, the next morning the minority party attempted to substitute the Utah Cares bill up for debate with Healthy Utah.  That motion also failed, with more votes going on the record.  The fruitless efforts strained the patience of the body.  The House feels very strongly about its position on Utah Cares.  Ultimately, the Legislature will be called into a Special Session once the Governor, Senate, and House can come to an agreement on how to move forward.

Education Funding

The budget this year was a bumper crop of sorts.  We were able to fund education with a 4% increase in the weighted pupil unit (WPU), which is the highest increase that has been made to education funding since 2008.  The Education Appropriations Chairman said,"This news comes with a congratulations...and a warning", alluding to the seasonal cycle of the economy and tax revenues and what happened after 2008.

However, the brisk funding increase didn't stop a massive protest at the Capitol demanding more funding.

Utah Teacher's Union fills the Capitol to demand even more money after Legislature funds biggest increase in education spending in 7 years. 
SB296 - Anti-discrimination and Religious Freedom

The biggest social issue bill to hit the Legislature in years worked its way quickly through the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee.  The bill makes sexual orientation and gender identity a protected class in regards to housing and employment.  I felt the bill was unnecessary from a housing perspective.  I also protested the way in which this weighty of an issue was worked so quickly through the process.  You can watch my floor speech regarding this subject below:

  

The Senate bill sponsors, Stuart Adams and Steve Urqhardt, are standing behind me during this debate.  The bill passed 65-10 (I voted against), was signed by the Governor the following evening, and is now the law of the land.

Mr. Peterson's Results

This year was a successful legislative season.  All four bills that I ran passed scrutiny and are on their way to the Governor's desk for a signature.  I also was also able to persuade our committee to fund Unit Reduction in Ogden's historic neighborhoods.  This will go a long way toward helping Ogden catch up to the rest of the state in the way of economic development.  The state will be funding the program with $750,000 of grant money this year.     

End of the Session


I was able to have my wife join me for the last hours of the Session.  Our work was completed at midnight.  The Governor came to speak to us and then we were able to unwind for a half hour with some comedy schtick.


Rep. Ed Redd and I sang a parody version of the Beatles tune Life Goes On.  Here are the lyrics that got the crowd laughing:

Dixon’s bill gives bodies to cadaver dogs.
 But only if they're someone no one missed. 
But before the Governor will sign the bill
He wants to add Greg Hughes name to the list.
 
Chorus:
O Brad Dee O Brad Daw Life Goes On, Daw!
O Brad Dee Daw Life Goes On
O Brad Dee O Brad Daw Life Goes On, Daw!
O Brad Dee Daw Life Goes On
 
Thurston ain't afraid to mess with Edward's bills
To make a change or even substitute
She don't know what she did to deserve all this
She's tried so hard to make us not pollute.
 
Arent demands action and the answers to
Why voters do not show up when they should
Let’s face it, we know voters simply do not care
Unless you tell them that they cannot burn their wood
 
McKay is learning to win over hearts and minds
So he can get the votes to pass his bills
But then he spars with our Parliamentarian
And we cast in all our 'NO' votes for the kill.

Miller likes to taunt the House Majority
He thinks that Healthy Utah is so cool
We all hope that next year he will understand
When all of his great bills are held in Rules.
 
Coleman wants to fill the streets with Tesla cars
Johnny pouts because they don't use gas
The Senate does not like our rowdy attitude
Van Tassel'd love to come and kick us in the _(awkward silence)_.

It was a great session.  I look forward to working on more issues facing our State over the summer.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

General Session 2015 - Update 4



We are in the final stretch of the session with only five working days left.  Tensions are high and events are happening quickly.

Hot Topic - Corrections Reform

Rep. Eric Hutchings presents his reform proposal to Majority Caucus
The house passed major corrections reform in HB348 this week.  The new law will focus on treating addictions and rehabilitating offenders rather than incarcerating them with more hardened inmates.  Our current system mingles low risk inmates with high risk inmates and the results have been disasterous by turning low risk inmates into professional criminals when they come out of prison.  I am very excited by the prospects of lower recidivism and better results from our prison system.  Our corrections system will actually be correcting problems.  You can listen to the insightful committee presentation HERE.

Hot Topic - Gas Tax


The House's version of a gas tax bill passed our Revenue and Taxation Committee.  I voted no. The proposal takes our 24.5 cent fixed tax and replaces it with a 24.5 cent tax that is calibrated as a percentage of $1.75 per gallon.  If the wholesale price of a gallon of gas rises above that amount the tax would rise accordingly as a fixed percentage of that higher price.  It is effectively a sales tax with some ceilings and floors on the tax amount.  The Senate passed a version of the gas tax that calls for a flat 10 cent increase in the current tax.

We expect that the House Gas Tax and the Senate Gas Tax will be morphed together to produce some hybrid bill before it is finally consideration for a vote on the floor.  We will see what comes to us for final review.

Hot Topic - Religious Protection/LGBT Non-Discrimination

L. Tom Perry speaks at LGBT non-discrimination press conference.
This is a very difficult issue.  The LDS Church and LGBT community have come together to  compromise on a religious freedom and non-discrimination bill.  The bill. HB296, was released yesterday at a press conference to announce joint support from both parties. After an initial review, I am troubled by the current language and very uncomfortable with the legal challenges that it may present.  Once this language insinuates itself into our books, it is there...forever.  At this point, I am unsure I can support the bill.  This is a highly volatile issue which cuts deep into sentiments on both sides of the discussion.  We will be discussing this issue more earnestly as the bill works it's way out of the Senate and into the House.

Hot Topic - Healthy Utah vs. Utah Cares

Healthy Utah is presented to committee.  Bill failed 4-9
There has been a lot written in the press about the House being unwilling to hear the Governor's Healthy Utah plan in committee.  In speaking to Legislators individually about their thoughts on the program, the program has less than 1/3rd support in our body.  Ultimately, the press and the Governor's office demanded a hearing.  The House agreed to hear the bill and it failed unsurprisingly in committee by nearly 2/3rds.

Fortunately, the House has another plan ready, known as Utah Cares, that will cover individuals up to 100% of the Federal Poverty Level and will use the Primary Care Network to help meet basic medical needs.  Utahns will have a bigger financial stake in the program and thus Utah will have greater flexibility with how the program is administered.  The program utilizes more local funding and more local control.  It is truly a Utah solution to providing access to healthcare for our disadvantaged population.    

Mr. Peterson's Bills

HB127 - Tax Increments Amendments

I presented my tax increment bill to the House Floor.   Here is video.  The bill gets off to an awkward start:


SB203 - Immigrant Consultants Amendments

Senator Escamilla asked me to sponsor this bill on the House Floor since we worked together on this subject back in 2012.  I was even able to plug Weber State University in the intro:


Lincoln Day Dinner


Governor Herbert and Lt. Governor Spencer Cox showed up to our Weber County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner.  Glad to see them make the trip up to our neck of the woods.

The Bow Tie Caucus




Of course, it wouldn't be right to go without participating in our annual bow tie day at the Hill.

In final thoughts, it is important for Utahns to be informed on the issues and be in communication with their representatives.  Due to time constraints, this will likely be the last update before the session is finished next week.  If you have any issue or concern on your mind, please CONTACT ME, and let me know your thoughts.  The events at the Capitol do cast a shadow over the rest of the State.  Lets keep government accountable and responsive.  



Monday, February 23, 2015

General Session 2015 - Update 3



The House has now increased its floor debate time to four hours per day and meatier issues are working their way through the process.

The Dead Body Bill


A representative brought a bill to us that deals with how unclaimed bodies at the county morgue can be treated. The bill permits bodies to be used in forensic training.  It was a creepy conversation to say the least.  The bottom line is make sure you treat your friends and family well, lest you go "unclaimed".

Hot Topic - Medicaid Expansion


The House continues to mull over the options of Medicaid expansion.  In a recent closed caucus meeting we discussed three options that are on the table:

1.  Not Now - Wait to see how a pending Supreme Court case rules in June regarding the legality of subsides for insurance premiums in Obamacare.  The case will have a significant impact on how any program is structured.  The political landscape may change in 2016 and also contribute to significant changes in how the program may need to be organized.

2.  Utah Cares - This option is designed to help the most medically frail and vulnerable people in the state.  It costs less than the Healthy Utah plan, makes fewer people dependent on government programming, and has the least amount of fiscal risk.  This option would provide the least amount of volatility in relation to Federal budget demands and the national political debate regarding heath care policy.  This is the option that I support.

3.  Healthy Utah - This is the option that would increase the number of people dependent on government subsidies and programming the most.  It costs more than Utah Cares and relies more heavily on Federal funding.  I do not support this option.



Hot Topic - Utah Seal Belt Laws

HB79 which would make leaving your seat belt unbuckled a primary offense passed our House and is now on to the Senate.  You can watch the debate here with my opposing remarks around the 15:00 mark.


Hot Topic - Constitutional Convention


With the Federal Government carrying extraordinary and historic debt, there has been a movement among the states to call a Constitutional Convention of the States as prescribed in Article V of our founding document.  We heard two "Article V Convention" bills to a packed room in our Revenue and Taxation committee.

You can listen to the captivating audio presentations for HJR 14 and HJR 7.  I support and voted for both bills.  

Newspaper Nonsense

A mismatched photo and headline on the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune are always amusing.


Mr.  Peterson's Bills

HB88 - Veterinary Practice Amendments - This bill has passed the House and Senate and sits on the Governor's desk awaiting a signature.

HB 127 - Window Egress Fairness - This bill passed committee and a vigorous inquiry on the House Floor.  You can watch the debate here:


HB310 - Vintage Motorcycle Amendments

This bill passed committee unanimously, passed the House unanimously, and now moves on to the Senate.  Here is video of the Floor presentation:


Look for more updates in the near future.  If you have any legislative concern or issue, please CONTACT ME, and let me know your thoughts.



Friday, February 13, 2015

General Session 2015 - Update 2



Activity has been picking up since the last update.  Committee meeting agendas have been filled to the brim for the most part and Legislators are doing their work of vetting legislation and making edits where and when necessary.

Hot Topic - Primary Seat Belt Law


Our Law Enforcement Standing Committee heard emotional testimony about the need for primary seat belt laws.  Not buckling up is already a secondary offense and you can receive a citation for not wearing your seat belt if an officer pulls you over for another violation.  Rep. Perry's HB79 would make it possible for officers to pull you over simply for a seat belt violation.

The bill passed our committee but I voted against the bill.  Utah already has an 83% seat belt usage rate which is higher than many other states that have primary seat belt laws on the books.  I have doubts about the effectiveness of the law in increasing usage while it also raises the prospect of our citizens receiving more traffic tickets.  The sponsor is working on some changes to the bill so we will watch to see how those tweaks manifest themselves before its time for floor debate.

Hot Topic - Utah's Employee Pension


In 2010, the Legislature made significant reforms to bail out the existing pension system for state employees.  Utah's Retirement System is one of the healthiest in the nation, and even with that distinction, it is only 85% funded.  One of the unintended consequences of the 2010 reforms was that it has negatively affected the State's ability to hire employees.  Many state job positions are going unfilled right now due to stagnant wages.  A bill proposed by Rep. Cunningham would change retirement policy to allow rehiring of some retired employees to fill these positions.  This proposal lit a powder keg of opposition which led to a very fruitful discussion on the topic.  A task force is being formed now to discuss this topic at length over the interim.  It is important to maintain sound principles in funding the state pension system while also meeting the needs of state and local governments to hire and retain quality employees.  

Hot Topic - The Gas Tax

Our Gas Tax is currently a fixed dollar amount and has not been increased since 1997.  In that time, inflation has eroded the real value of that fixed amount by over 30%.  As time has moved forward, the funds from the gas tax has also become insufficient to pay for the roads it was intended to fund.  So, a reset is proposed this year to bring the gas tax in line with road maintenance costs.  There are a couple proposals.  One is to simply increase the tax by 10-cents to make up for the lost real value since 1997.  The other is to convert the gas tax into a percentage sales tax based on today's gasoline prices.  The sales tax method would treat gasoline very similarly to other retail goods and services that are purchased everyday.  Both ideas are currently being vetted.  I would prefer to significantly reduce the gas tax and instead base road taxes on vehicle miles driven. Gas consumption is a rough approximation of usage but doesn't account for hybrid and other alternate fuel vehicles that use the roads.  A VMD model would tie taxes to road usage directly.

Mr. Peterson's Bills

HB88 - Veterinary Practice Amendments


This bill passed the house unanimously.  You can watch the pun-laced floor presentation here:


The bill also passed a Senate standing committee and will soon be heard on the Senate Floor.

HB 127 - Local Land Use Amendments

My bill to exempt owners of old homes from onerous city requirements regarding basement egress windows has passed a committee unanimously.  It is scheduled to be heard on the House Floor soon.  


This bill was brought to me by a constituent and will include vintage motorcycles in the list of vehicles given special treatment due to their age.   

Appropriations


We spent some time recently passing our base budget bills.  These bills will maintain government operations in the unlikely event that complete chaos erupts and prevents the House and Senate from agreeing on final terms for the remaining budget items that need to be negotiated.

Our appropriations subcommittee made its final recommendations to the Executive Appropriations Committee.  Here were our committee priorities for one-time and ongoing funding:




I am happy to report that both of my requests made it to the top half of the one-time list.  Our committee had been allotted $18.4M to prioritize.  After reducing many of the requested amounts, we were able to fund nearly all the entities who made requests.  My request to fund a grant writer for the Utah Historic Railroad Museums was recommended with full funds intact at $200,000.  My request for $2.5M for Ogden City Historic Preservation and Unit Reduction was reduced to $1.25M.  While I wish we could increase that, I am fully aware of the realities of the many competing interests needing attention.  I prefer to view this as the glass half-full.

Tag Teamwork

A proposed Constitutional Amendment recently made it out of our Revenue and Taxation committee with awkward changes and edits.  The bill as proposed would insert our State's name into the Oath of Office.  But, the edits in committee swapped the Utah and U.S. Constitutions so that Utah was first in the Oath.  That edit is decidedly non-traditional and half of our committee squirmed when the amendment passed.  To fix this, I proposed a substitute on the House Floor.  You can watch that video here:



If you have any legislative issues or concerns, don't hesitate to CONTACT ME.  More updates to come...

  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

General Session 2015 - Update 1



The 2014 General Session has begun in earnest.  Our first day was full of ceremony and memorials as Greg Hughes took the gavel to serve as our new Speaker of the House.  Of course, due respect was given to Becky Lockhart and her family.  Traditionally, the former Speaker will swear in the new Speaker.  We were grateful to have an elder statesman in Rob Bishop (a former Speaker of the House himself) to do the honors in lieu of Speaker Lockhart's absence.




Since I am serving as the Vice Chair of the Revenue and Taxation Committee this year, leadership asked me and all the Chairs and Vice Chairs to do some follow up training on conducting committee  meetings.


Of course,  it wouldn't have been proper to retire from the Third House without a formal sendoff of my replacement.  Here is video of me embarrassing my good friend Steve Handy after business was concluded for the day:

  

I leave the Third House with mixed feelings.  It was a tremendous amount of work and required large amounts of energy.  Yet, the relief it brought to the House, I felt, was an important element that healed wounds after days of difficult debate and contention.  I will miss the job, but look forward to new experiences.  For memory's sake, here is a "Best Of" video from 2014.


The week's meetings then began in earnest.  Our appropriations subcommittees began hearing from Department Directors on how they planned to reduce their budgets by 2%.  This budget reduction review exercise forces each department to take a hard look at their programs and cut waste.   Many Directors we heard from were prepared and demonstrated an ability to meet the challenge.  Others were less agreeable to the proposition and presented some creative accounting gymnastics in order to accomplish the task.  We have been taking notes and will be budgeting based on the reports we are receiving. 


Mr. Peterson's Bills Update

HB88 - Veterinary Practice Amendments - This bill was heard at committee and passed out unanimously.  You can listen to the presentation HERE.

HB127 - Municipal Land Use Amendments - This bill is being clarified after the League of Cities and Towns asked to change some language to better align with its intent.  We are working on some refinements which should be ready in the next few days.

HB204 - Tax Increment Amendments - This bill is also being clarified after the League of Cities and Towns asked for some time to review the impact it had on RDAs and bonding.  We should have these issues resolved in the next few days as well.  

Mr. Peterson's Appropriations Update

Ogden Historic Preservation and Unit Reduction - I have been speaking to members of my committee which will hear our formal presentation in a couple weeks.  The proposal appears to be received warmly and the members I have spoken to understand the impact the request has for preserving state history while also moving Ogden forward as an flagship community in Northern Utah.  I look forward to making our formal presentation in the coming weeks.

Utah Railroad Museum Authority Grant Writer Funding - I have requested that the Legislature fund a grant writer for our state railroad museums.  The purpose is to use the skills of the grant writer to solicit grant funds outside of the state. These funds will allow the museums to enhance their offerings to the public and also become self-funding through the grant writing process.      

Hot Topics

Wood Burning Ban - I predicted the outright ban proposal would be DOA after we seeing the first public hearing on the subject.  If the ban were to be implemented, the Legislature would certainly react to undo it.  The executive branch can't risk that kind of political repudiation.  So, the ban will morph into a much softer form if it survives at all.

Income Tax Increase - The proposal to tax your income an additional 2% failed in committee.  Your wallets are safe for now.  

Clean Air - We recently held a press conference outlining bills affecting cleaner air the state.  One initiative includes converting state owned buses to natural gas.  There is a laundry list of other bills so we will keep our eyes on how they progress.


This concludes the first update.  If you have any legislative issues or concerns, don't hesitate to CONTACT ME.  

NOTE:  We get a lot of emails from folks outside of Utah.  Please be sure to include your full name and property address in any correspondence so we can weed out the not-so-real constituents from any correspondence you send.  Thanks!