Monday, September 21, 2015

Interim Update: Legislative Bus Tour to Southern Utah

The legislature recently returned from a bus tour to southern Utah as part of its interim legislative session.  The experience was a 2-day affair and something new for many legislators.  The last off-campus tour during interim was in 2008.

Our journey began at the Capitol building at 7am Wednesday morning.  Fortunately, spouses were able to attend and I invited my wife to accompany me on our trip.  I paid for her travel expenses.

Of course, no bus trip would be complete without a few persuasive video presentations along the way.  We were subjected to many.

Our first stop was in Price where we heard from Lt. Governor Cox and staff at USU-Eastern.  We also heard from the owner of Bowie Resource Partners who recently purchased some failing coal mines in Carbon County.  They have turned their operations around from being major money losers to now being profitable ventures.

We then got back on the bus and headed to Green River, Utah.  Along the way, the mayor spoke to us about the state of the city and how things were fairing in his town of 950 people.  When we arrived at Green River, we stopped at the local high school.  We discovered that they have 105 students between grades 7 and 12.  The staff often teach multiple subjects and the school has just a principle and a secretary for administration.  The principle also plays the role of teacher.

With high teacher turnover and low student counts, the school can only provide the most basic needs and curriculum to its students.  Students have to seek additional opportunities elsewhere.  Unfortunately, the nearest elsewhere is about 90 minutes away.  My hat goes off to these scrappy teachers as they make due in a difficult situation.  They truly are working a labor of love.

After leaving Green River we visited Dead Horse Point.

En route to Dead Horse Point we had a member of the Grand County government on board to present to us.  One of our colleagues didn't like some things this person had to say in a written statement earlier in the year. He called him out on it and suddenly there was a major disagreement between the two.  The Q and A portion of our discussion came to an abrupt end.

After disembarking and walking around for a bit, the confrontation flared up again as members of the Grand County council had to contend with allegations they were opposed to mineral development in the area.  It was certainly an interesting meeting.

Later we headed east along the Colorado River for a dinner event at the Red Cliffs Lodge.

The following morning we were given the option to walk around Arches National Park or float down the Colorado River for several hours.  We opted to float the river.  We witnessed all kinds of pent up legislative frustration spring forth into a series of boat drenchings as everyone took the opportunity to splash their colleagues.  Years of grudges were settled (and perhaps some new ones created) on the river.

Later, we boarded the bus again and were on our way to our next stop.  We entered Emery County and the fascinating San Rafael Swell region.

County officials were on hand to explain some of the unique problems they are experiencing.  Emery county only has 11,000 people.  The county is 1.8 million acres big and only 8% is privately owned.  The rest is owned by the Federal government.  With that, their communities live and die by regulations imposed by Washington D.C.  For instance, many coal mines have shut down due to tighter regulations.  There are many power plants in Southern Utah due to the easy availability of coal.  Yet, many of these plants have shut down due to ever increasing environmental standards.  In many cases, these power plants employed significant portions of the communities.  They have suffered under the burden of ever-increasing Federal regulations.

After stopping for a break in Castledale, we embarked up Huntington Canyon and over into Sanpete County.  We discovered that there is a heated and ongoing water feud between Carbon and Sanpete county going back to the 1940's.  One county feels they have been jilted by the other and is seeking legislative intervention to settle the matter.

After having a fantastic turkey dinner at the Fairview dance hall, we drove back to the Capitol and arrived in SLC around 9:30pm.

It was a whirlwind tour.  Yet, I appreciated seeing the side of Utah that is often in the background of public debates.  With such a small population, it is often difficult for our rural friends to be heard at the Capitol.  I believe this trip really opened the eyes of the legislature to the issues of rural Utah and how our decisions at the Capitol are affecting them.  The trip was definitely a great experience and worth the time invested in learning about these complicated yet important issues.    

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Vote to Move the Draper Prison to SLC

Today I voted to move the ailing Draper prison to a new site in Salt Lake City.  Critics of the move have cited costs and implied cronyism in liquidating state owned property.  Lets clear the air on the facts of the situation.

The effort to understand the best interest of the taxpayer in moving the prison has been ongoing for the past four years.  When the original proposal to sell the prison site came up in 2011, the process dictated by the laws only allowed for a 90-day request-for-proposal from contractors.  With such a large site and important impacts for Utah moving forward, the Legislature decided to create a Commission to study the issue and make sure the State was making the wisest choice possible.  This commission was called the Prison Relocation and Development Authority (PRADA).

Rep. Brad Wilson presents the resolution to move the Draper prison to Salt Lake City

PRADA was tasked with contracting with architects, geologists, and other specialists in analyzing all the impacts associated with rebuilding or moving the Draper prison.  The study was exhaustive.  Two years ago, after preliminary reports came to the Legislature, we voted to move the prison to a future site which was to be determined.  At that time there were about 50 sites being considered.

Ultimately, that long list was winnowed down to 5 sites.  After final deliberation and analysis, the Salt Lake City site was chosen as the best long term value to the taxpayer when considering construction costs and operation costs over the 50 year life of the site.

Here is the information that helped inform my vote:

Passage of the bill was not without drama.  Rep. Fred Cox attemped to substitute the bill with his own version that keeps the prison at the Draper site.

There was little support for that on the floor.  Another substitute was offered to override Rep. Cox's substitute.  The vote to override Rep. Cox's substitute passed with his being the only dissenting vote.

Debate on the bill was emotional and passionate.  Ultimately the bill passed with a vote of 62-12.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Spending Your Tax Dollars on Education

The Utah Taxpayer Association recently published data on Utah's 41 school districts and how they spent tax dollars for the last fiscal year.

Here is their report:

There is some really interesting information in this report.  I wanted to take a look at Ogden and Weber School Districts specifically to see how they compared to the state average.  Here are some charts I created from the data:

Lets take a look at spending per student in various categories.  Instruction costs are less in Ogden School District compared to Weber School District and the State Average.  Yet, media costs are significantly more.  Ogden SD has higher student support costs while Weber has higher student transport costs.  Facility construction is extremely low for Ogden SD and high for Weber SD.  Ogden SD also has much higher nutrition expenses.

These data sets aren't very surprising given that Ogden School District serves a very old urban center while Weber School District serves an area that is still growing in population and suburban sprawl.  I believe the spike in media spending in Ogden SD may be representative of the technology focus on ESL and improved learning.  Ogden SD has been involved in a very rigorous program focused on enhancing student achievement. You can read more about the results of that program.

Both Weber SD and Ogden SD pay higher than the average wage for teachers in Utah.  Kudos to them for doing so.

Finally, here is the total spent per pupil.  Weber School District mirrors the state average closely while Ogden School District spends significantly more.  

A special thanks to the Taxpayer Association for gathering and publishing this data in a format that is comprehensible.  For policymakers like myself, this is very helpful information.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Plurality Problem: Finding a Majority Winner in the Wake of SB54

With the passage of SB54, Utah's caucus/convention method of determining how candidates get placed on ballot was paired with a parallel method where candidates can be placed on the ballot through a petition effort.  The changes are scheduled to take affect in 2016.

The old caucus/convention system provided one candidate per party by the time the general election came around.  In the event there was a contest at convention, a primary election would typically be held to select between the top two candidates vetted at convention.  However, with the new petition process coming on line, it may be possible for many candidates, even more than two from the same party, to be on a primary ballot.

The question then is what happens when you have more than two candidates on a ballot and the winning candidate receives less than a majority of the vote  (aka a plurality)?  Interestingly, 36 of the states in the U.S. have a plurality system in place and have no other process or mechanism for making sure the winning candidate receives a majority of the vote.  Yet, 14 other states do require a majority vote to win an election.

The question facing the Legislature this year is multi-faceted:

1.  Do we want to require a majority vote for a candidate to win an election?  Or are we fine with a candidate receiving less than a majority?

2.  If we want a majority winner, what method would be best to make that happen?

Our interim committee looked at several prospective methods used by other states to determine a winner in a case of plurality winners. One option includes a run-off election held between the top two candidates in the primary election.  Another option includes a 'ranked' voting system where voters prioritize multiple candidates.  A third, less appealing, option includes kicking a plurality result from the primary race back to the parties to determine a winner.

'Ranked' voting, often called Preferential Voting was one of the for fascinating options.  Here is a video that explains how it works in Australia:

Our committee has been tasked with making a recommendation to the Legislature on how we feel we should best handle the plurality question.  We will be discussing this issue for several months.  Regardless of our committee's final recommendation, elections are about to become a lot more interesting in Utah.  Campaigns starting in 2016 will look a lot different than they have in the past.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Tides of War: A Look Back At The Human Costs Of WWII

In light of the anniversary of D-Day, my attention was drawn to this captivating video that illustrates the human costs of World War II.  There is a reason the men and women who sacrificed in that epic war effort are called The Greatest Generation.  The world was in an existential fight for survival against tyrannical conquest.  As illustrated by this sobering and compelling video, there were many who did not live to see victory.


May we remember those who fought for freedom and the ultimate costs of its preservation.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Utah Prison Relocation - Answers to Your Questions

There has been a great deal of hyperventilation and consternation regarding the relocation of the Utah State Prison from Draper to one of four possible sites.  Most of the criticism, if not all, is of the Not-In-My-Back-Yard variety.  Along with these heated feelings come myth and misinformation in an attempt to rationally support an emotional sentiment.

The best policies are based in fact.  The best policymakers seek these facts in order to inform their decisions.  So, to help inform the public debate and continue a transparent and lively discussion on the future site of the Utah State Prison, here is a fact sheet that will help answer some of the most commonly asked questions.


If you have any other questions you would like answered, let me know.  If this isn't enough for you and you want to dive deeper into the issue, I recommend you review Why Move The Draper Prison?

In the meantime, I look forward to a thoughtful discussion on the selection of the final site for the new prison.  Combined with our recent legislative action implementing significant corrections reforms, we should begin to experience better outcomes from our corrections system.

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.