Monday, December 26, 2011

The Plat of Zion: New Urbanism On The Sprawling Wasatch Front

I attended a meeting recently with the Wasatch Front Regional Council to discuss transportation, mass transit, and future development along the Wasatch Front.  The topic of high density development came up.  We acknowledged that most of Davis and Salt Lake Counties had reached a point where future housing development would be constricted by available land.  However, I was curious about Weber County and how many years of developable land remained.  I wanted to know how many more years we had before economic conditions would bring an end to suburban sprawl and force higher density development and in-fill within existing communities in Weber County.

Interestingly, when I posed this question several individuals in the room expressed their opinion that we had already reached that point.  I wasn't presented with any data, but the point was to suggest that we need to start looking at ways to develop more sustainable and integrated  We need to look at rethinking our community design with the automobile as the keystone of a fulfilling and comfortable lifestyle.

I read a brilliant essay this week that takes a look back at Utah's urban planning history and explains how we got to where we are today and makes suggestions on where we go from here.  The lessons from this essay are highly enlightening and I believe embody the qualities we need to adhere to as we plan for the future of our urban centers.

Here is a copy of the essay as it was sent to me:

Building Zion
One of the lessons gleaned from this essay regards the importance of personal association. It was important in the early days for people to cluster together for several reasons including cultural experiences and education opportunity. The automobile and the internet have made such close proximity unnecessary today.

However, from an LDS theological perspective, such proximity is still necessary so that the Priesthood can be exercised and administered. It is not possible to administer the sacraments via Skype or set apart someone to a church office via Twitter.  Theologically speaking, there must be a physical interaction of humanity in order to bless humanity.  Hence, the high density Plat of Zion design.

Regardless of religious affiliation, there are many other temporal benefits to such a design that bless the masses:  Community cohesion and a wise use of limited resources being dominant ones.

It is my hope that the public becomes more knowledgeable about this subject and that communities across the Wasatch Front can begin to articulate how these ideas can benefit their towns.  As we make plans for the future, may we be careful stewards and make judicious choices.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Top Heavy: Utah's Dependence on Federal Funds

During our December Caucus meeting, I was sitting next to Ken Ivory who was reviewing a report he received from the State regarding last year's bill that required state agencies to make contingency plans for both a 5% and 25% reduction in Federal funding. 

Of course, to do this, you first have to know how much of your budget comes from Federal sources.  Ken was kind enough to forward me a copy of the report.  Here is a list of state agencies and their corresponding dependence on Federal funds:

Pretty surprising results in some cases.  Here are some highlights:

1. 84.4% -  National Guard 
2. 45% -  Department of Community and Culture
3. 87.2% - Department of Workforce Services
4. 73% - Department of Heath

There are plenty more in there.  The bottom line is that in the event of the Federal fund spigot being turned off or reduced, these agencies would be hugely impacted.  What would a more self-reliant state funded bureaucracy look like?  The whole report is 250 pages so I am still digging through it.  More to come.   

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December Caucus 2011

We met as a Republican Caucus today to review some up and coming issues regarding state business.  Here are some highlights:

The Budget

The Governor made his budget proposal recently.  Interestingly, his budget contains about $30 Million more than our consensus budget figures show.  This is an interesting discrepancy.  It appears that the Governor believes that there are accounts somewhere that can be tapped to cover this difference.  If so, the House and Senate are not privy to the whereabouts of these funds and will be allocating funds accordingly.

The State is now at 90% of our constitutional borrowing limit due to a 7% decline in property tax assessments statewide this year.  The state is also running at a $52 Million ongoing budget deficit that needs to be corrected.  Also, student population growth increased 12,000 that needs to be funded.  Even though it is widely reported in the press that we have a $120 Million surplus this year, this "surplus" will likely be consumed entirely in funding student growth, correcting our ongoing budget deficit, and paying down our debt.

Interestingly, a comparison was also given to us today showing how much we have eroded away at our Rainy Day Funds.  In 2007 our Rainy Day Funds and reserves totaled $1.56 Billion.  Today we have just $348 Million.  Rainy Day Fund renewal should be a budget priority as well if possible.

Health Care

We heard a presentation on the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare).  I didn't like what I heard.  You won't either.  Here is what you have to look forward to:
  • Those aged 25-34 will have their premiums increase 40% by January 2014.
  • Those who choose not to purchase a policy will be fined 1% of their yearly income.
  • If an employee chooses a wrong policy, their employer will be fined.
  • Transgender assignment surgery will be covered in all policies.
  • As your premiums increase, the Feds will subsidize your premiums (with money they taxed from you.)
  • ...and more unsettling regulations.
We also discussed that Utah has 600 individuals on high risk state funded insurance called HIP.  This small group of people have consumed $40 Million in just two years ($33,360 per individual per year).  The Federal government granted Utah the $40 Million to help this group a couple years ago with the idea that the funds would last through 2014.  Today, the money is gone and rather than discontinue the program, the Federal Government has cut Utah a check for another $40 Million in order to prevent embarrassment and discrediting of the program.   

Public Education

The Legislature discussed the concepts of merit pay for school teachers and some of the dynamics at play.  Although no details were discussed, it appears that the body is leaning toward this type of compensation plan for teachers.  Of course, the devil is in the details.  Keep your eyes peeled on this issue in the weeks to come...

Note:  Federal funds equal just $280 Million of our $3.4 Billion public school budget.  Is it worth the strings that are attached?  Let's figure out a way to jettison Federal dollars and exercise freedom to teach under our own recognizance.  

Land Issues

In a big push back at Federal overreach, Ken Ivory is proposing a bill that will force the Federal Government to sell public lands to private owners.  The National Parks would be deeded to the U.S Government but the remaining land would be sold off with 5% of the proceeds going to school funds.  The remainder would be revenue for the U. S. Government (and hopefully would pay down the debt.)

It's a bold idea.  I support it.

Look for more updates to come....

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rollback: Reducing the Burden of Unemployment Insurance

I am sponsoring three unemployment insurance related bills this year.  Two of them are technical in nature and bring Utah's code in line with Federal law regarding reporting procedures and accounting practices.  I won't bore you with the details.

The other bill is more substantive and should be a blessing to taxpayers this year.  First though, let me give you some background on Utah's Unemployment Insurance (UI).

UI is derived from a formula that is written in the state code.  The final number that determines the Overall Contribution rate paid out by any employer is determined by several factors that combine together and produce a figure.  Here are a few components of that:

1.  Employer Contribution Rate - This part of the equation equals all the UI benefits paid out on behalf of the employer over a four year period divided by all the taxable wages of the employer for that same period.  If you are a new business and have no employment history, then the rate you pay will be the average of rates paid by businesses in your industry until you get enough history behind you.

2.  Social Contribution Rate - This rate is derived by calculating all the UI benefits paid out statewide over a four year period and divide it by all the taxable wages in the state over that same period.

3.  Reserve Factor - This is a multiplier that is used like a gas pedal or brake pedal to keep the UI fund solvent.  The fund is designed to hold 18 to 24 months of benefits at any given time.  Ideally, the reserve factor is set at 1.0.  If there is too much money in the account the reserve factor reduces to 0.5.  If there isn't enough in the fund, the rate can change to 1.5 or 2.0 depending on the circumstances.

Here is the formula found in statute to determine what you pay in UI:

Employer Contribution Rate  x  Reserve Factor + Social Contribution Rate  = 
Overall Contribution Rate

The bill that I am sponsoring dose a couple things:

A.  It places a cap on the Employer Contribution Rate so that it cannot exceed 7% for 2012.  Currently that cap is at 9%.  

B.  It caps the Social Contribution Rate at 0.4% for 2012.  Currently, that is scheduled to be 0.5% if this bill does not pass. 

So what is the benefit? Well, Utah's maximum rate is the second highest in the Union.  Maintaining the current course places our business recruiting efforts at a considerable competitive disadvantage.  Encouragingly, it is also estimated that these changes will put an additional $26.4 million in the pocket of Utah taxpayers this year.

UPDATE 12/20/2011 - Here are the links to the bills:

HB22 - Centralized New Hire Registry Act Amendments
HB23 - Special Administrative Expense Account Amendments
HB30 - Unemployment Insurance Amendments
If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Utah's Promising Money Infusion: From Russia With Love

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Alexander Aginsky of the Aginsky Consulting Group.  He runs an asset management and investment firm specializing in bringing capital from world markets to investment opportunities in the United States.

His business, as you can likely guess from the name, has a particular niche in placing Russian money in opportunities is the U.S.

In our conversation, I discussed Utah's interest in human capital and our desire to bring well-educated and skilled people to our state.  I also discussed our desire to have people invest financially in our community.

What Mr. Aginsky had to share was fascinating in my opinion.  Due to the current brain drain going on in Russia, talented individuals are seeking opportunities abroad.  More interestingly, wealthy Russians are seeking a way to transfer their assets to the safe haven of the U.S. while also obtaining green cards to live here.

As it turns out, our government has a program where wealthy individuals can "buy" their immigration into the U.S. by committing a certain level of funding to invest in American businesses.  With the creation of 10 jobs through the investment, the foreign investor is granted permission to obtain a green card.  This is certainly exciting news for several reasons.

First, given Utah's innovative economy, it may be ripe for such capital investment.  Secondly, the money comes with extremely affordable terms.  The point of the investments are to preserve and protect capital rather than to push it to astronomical returns.  Such a motive provides cheap money for local businesses to grow.  Third, this process opens the doors for desirable immigration as those of means and education come to the U.S. to establish themselves.  This process in essence increases the wealth and prosperity of the community that receives both the financing and the people making the investment.

So what kind of opportunities benefit from this proposal?  The Aginsky Group does underwrite all the potential investments for viability.  However, he did say that real estate developments, medium sized existing businesses, and commercial real estate are excellent places for their client's funds.  Funding infusions can be as low a $1 million and as high as $200 million.   Required returns can be as low as 0.5% (not a typo).

If you are looking to finance the growth of your company, expand a product line, finance a real estate development, or invest in commercial real estate, the Aginsky Consulting Group may be a good place to start.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Peterson Family Thanksgiving Blues Jam

It has been years since we have had Thanksgiving dinner with my family.  As it turns out, my brother and his wife flew into town this week by surprise for the holiday.  Here is a glimpse into what happens when the Peterson boys get together:

I am thankful for my family.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

U-Turn: Ogden School District's Bold Plan For Improvement

I was invited by the new Superintendent of the Ogden School District, Brad Smith, to walk classrooms with him this past week.  In the invitation, it stated his goal was to personally visit every every classroom in the district within the next several months.

I accepted the invitation and we met to walk through Dee School.  To be honest, I was unexcited about the visit because my children attended Dee a couple years ago and I was very familiar with its challenges.  Dee School, as of 2010, was the lowest ranked school in Utah.  The population is economically challenged and also diverse. The complexion of the school is approximately 20% Caucasian, 75% Hispanic, and 5% Miscellaneous.  English as a second language has been a big challenge for the school.  

When our children attended, we loved our children's teachers.  However, it seemed that much of the school was in a defensive posture.  Students struggled for survival and academic achievement in a system that was awkwardly equipped to meet their needs.  Our children's experience at Dee ended when they ultimately tested into Ogden School District's Advanced Learning Academy before transferring to  Ogden Preparatory Academy, a Public Charter School.

I met Superintendent Smith at the school and the first thing that impressed me was the new Principal.  Mrs. Sondra Jolovich-Motes was transferred from Ogden High School to oversee the transformation of Dee School.  I was impressed with her focus, drive, and knowledge.  As we walked the school, which has a very awkward cylindrical floor plan, it became apparent very quickly that it was not the same school that our children had attended.  First, the class sizes were reduced to 19 per teacher.  Secondly, the ESL students were getting almost 30 minutes a session with the Imagine Learning program which is highly reputed for its ability to accelerate English skills in ESL students.

Most importantly, however, was the dramatic change that has been made in the way that teachers address student's skill sets.  The school is partnering with the University of Virginia on a system for accelerating student achievement.  The concept involves testing the students for specific skills and identifying weak spots.  Each student then has an action plan created based on the skills they need.  The teachers identify what is needed for the class as a whole based off the individual assessments and teach based on that.  Lesson plans are changed weekly as student's progress is measured and reported.

The objective of the School District is to use this smart approach to propel Dee from last place to the top of the rankings for schools with similar socio-economic traits.  The goals are big but the School District has taken bold action to achieve them.  We will find out in May how the program has helped students and the school at large.  Let's wish Ogden School District well and congratulate them on adapting to meet the needs of the students.  I look forward to May's report. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Moving Cheese: Creating Competition In Utah's Education System

In 1998, Spencer Johnson published the book "Who Moved My Cheese?"  The book is a motivational message about adapting to survive in life that is constantly changing.  The gist of the title refers to the mice that are found in a laboratory maze looking for their cheese.  If the cheese is kept in one place in the same maze, the mice will quickly be able to find it each time they are placed in the maze.  However, if the cheese is moved, the known path to the cheese changes and must be learned anew. 

The crux of the book was that as people, when our "cheese" is moved, we have the choice of how to react.  We can cheerfully adapt and find new ways to the cheese.  Or, we can pout, sulk, and carry on with a doom and gloom attitude.  Sometimes, we find ourselves somewhere between the two.

I refer to this book because of an experience I had recently with some of my colleagues discussing education.  We recently had an opportunity to meet with the stakeholders and parents involved is several Weber County Public Charter Schools.  During this discussion we were able to address some of the issues challenging Public Charter Schools.  However, the most poignant comments were regarding the purpose of Public Charter Schools existence.

In essence, my colleagues who were present at the meeting view Public Charter Schools as a competitive force in the marketplace of education.  Historically, according to my colleagues, efforts to reform the traditional public education system have been too difficult to achieve in a significant way.  Much of this has to do with a giant existing bureaucracy that consumes half of our state budget.  So, rather that try to change the traditional public school system from within, the Legislature has chosen to support a path that creates forces outside of the traditional system to spur competition between the two.  Thus, the Legislature has "moved the cheese" of the entire public education system. (Note: This is not the same as the press' regular accusations of the Legislature "cutting the cheese".  Different issue.)

A most recent example of how this competitive force works is through a recently passed bill that supports online education.  SB65 allowed tax credits to be paid to vendors providing online classes.  Although the legislation will be refined this year, it has had a curious effect already.  Some, traditional school districts are looking to provide their own online classes in order to capture those tax credits.  This is the exact intent of the legislation.

The Public Charter School system provides additional opportunities for learning and does so in specific niches.  The Traditional Public School system provides a valuable service to the community as well.  Let's hope that innovation and improvement continue in both spheres as we work to take Utah's students beyond proficiency and toward excellency.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On-Line Education: Putting Taxpayers Underwater?

I had an opportunity to visit with the administration of the Weber School District and discuss some of the issues facing public schools from a Weber County perspective.

One of the topics of discussion was the implementation of SB65 which was proposed last year to allow Utah students to enroll with on-line education providers.  One of the consequences of the bill was that it provided a taxpayer subsidized credit to any online provider which now appears to be in the amount of $731 per credit.

Unfortunately, it also appears that the legislation provided few mechanisms for providing adequate accountability from those providers receiving taxpayer dollars. 

The school district cited two areas of improvement to SB 65 that it felt would better achieve the goals of the legislation while also providing some checks to misuse:

1.  Reduce the Dollar Amount Allotted Per Credit

The statutory Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU) is a formula used to determine how many taxpayer dollars are allocated per student to a public school.  In 2011, this number was $2,816.  Under SB 65, as it currently stands, on-line providers will be given $1,462 for providing classes for just two credits.  That is nearly half of the WPU allotted to a public school over the year.  In 2016 when students are allowed to take up to six credits, the total amount will be $4,386...nearly twice WPU.  It appears that this type of program, if on-line classes are to become more prominent in the education of Utah students, will begin to weigh heavily on the public coffers, jeopardize its viability, and make the program unsustainable.

A solution to this dilemma would be to reduce the subsidy to the on-line provider to an amount in line with other privately available courses.  For example, BYU's Independent study courses cost betwen $48 and $126 per credit.

2.  Allocate Funds to Districts to Also Develop On-Line Courses

Given the taxpayer investment that already exists in local school districts, it may be appropriate to allow local districts to develop their own on-line course material which can dovetail with the new higher standards of the Common Core Curriculum and provide students with an alternative means of study but with material that can be adapted to be compatible with current curriculum.  Also, having district level on-line credits would also allow for better accountability in testing.  By following testing protocols found in many universities, dishonesty in academic achievement (i.e. when mom or dad do the student's on-line work) can be removed from the learning experience. 

In essence, it appears that SB 65 has produced a few unintended consequences.  This is not surprising as almost all new legislation does this.  Hence, it may be wise for the legislature to look at amending the statute to address some of these concerns.  I look forward to the debate and seeing what we can do to make the on-line learning experience more productive and more cost-effective. 


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Video of the Day:Talking Redistricting

Scott Schwebke caught me at the Ogden River Restoration ribbon cutting and asked a few questions about redistricting:

More fun coming up October 17th!

Benevolent Baptists vs. Bloated Bureaucracy

I was recently made aware of a conflict in my neighborhood involving our local Baptist Church and recent legislation to update building codes.

At the center of the conflict is the following code 15A-3-113 which reads:

A new section IBC, Section 3401.6, is added as follows: "3401.6 Parapet bracing, wall anchors, and other appendages. Buildings constructed before 1975 shall have parapet bracing, wall anchors, and appendages such as cornices, spires, towers, tanks, signs, statuary, etc. evaluated by a licensed engineer when said building is undergoing reroofing, or alteration of or repair to said feature. Such parapet bracing, wall anchors, and appendages shall be evaluated in accordance with 75% of the seismic forces as specified in Section 1613. When allowed by the local building official, alternate methods of equivalent strength as referenced in an approved code under Utah Code, Subsection 15A-1-204(6)(a), will be considered when accompanied by engineer-sealed drawings, details, and calculations. When found to be deficient because of design or deteriorated condition, the engineer's recommendations to anchor, brace, reinforce, or remove the deficient feature shall be implemented.

In this particular case, the Baptist congregation had begun to replace the shingles on their  building in three phases a couple of years ago.  Each phase of the re-roof they pulled a permit with the city.  The third phase was to begin just a couple weeks ago.  However, when the contractor went to pull the permit, he was informed by the desk clerk that the above state statute was in effect and that in order to complete their roof repair they would need to have an engineer design a plan for seismic upgrades to include having bracing installed to tie together the roof trusses and the unreinforced masonry walls.  As you can probably guess, that is a very tall order for a small congregation of elderly worshipers. 

Obviously, something seems to have gone awry.  In discussing this particular section of code with a colleague familiar with the subject, he believes that the definition of a re-roof is to tear into the structural aspects of the roof rather than simply replacing the water barrier (like shingles and tar paper). However, it appears that city zoning inspectors differ in that interpretation.

I will be organizing a meeting between city zoning and the parishioner to see if we can introduce some common sense into the permitting process for this job.  If not, the next order of business will be to open a bill file and change the statute to compel municipal zoning enforcement to operate in a more reasonable fashion. 

Let's see what happens.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fighting Intergenerational Poverty

One of the issues that was discussed at interim session in September was the issue of intergenerational poverty.  Senator Stuart Reid placed the issue on the agenda of our Economic Development committee to find out what tools were at the State's disposal to help curb this cultural problem.

The hearing was slightly discouraging as we discovered that the state lacked the proper records to make substantive conclusions on the issue.  That means we will need to change the law to better account for who is receiving assistance from the State and when.

The poverty issue is a dead weight around the neck of the taxpayers of Utah.  A large portion of our state taxes are used to service those who find themselves in poverty.  If we can find a way to open doors of opportunity for children out of the poverty lifestyle, the state could return millions of dollars to its taxpayers.

Finding these opportunities will prove challenging.  Education has been mentioned as a key in breaking the poverty cycle.  Interestingly, due to mostly environmental forces, it appears that many in poverty remain in those circumstances due to a lack of education.  Yet, cultural forces within the poor community often place low value on educational opportunities or academic achievement.  It can be a viciously self-impeding feedback loop.

The CATO Institute recently published this brief video on poverty:

Hopefully the Legislature can address this issue this year and find some policy solutions that will benefit both the poor and the taxpayer alike.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Redistricting Session: Stalemate

The last two days we have spent at the Capitol in an effort to agree on new maps that will represent district shapes for the next 10 years.  Yesterday we passed the House District map with near unanimous support.  The Senate District map was less unanimous but received little push back during debate on the floor.

The Congressional map on the other hand is turning into a contest of will between not only Republicans and Democrats but also between the House and the Senate.

The morning was punctuated by a Redistricting Committee meeting that was held to publicly air two new maps that were drawn.  One map, what we will call the Ipson Map, was attractive to those in the House.  The McAdams Map, which was also presented, appeared to be favored by Democrats.  In a bizarre turn of events, all Senate committee members and Democrats voted for the McAdams Map, while just the Republican House members voted against it.  The map failed to pass out of committee.  When the Ipson Map came up for a vote, Republican House members voted for it, and Democrats and all Senators voted against it.  It failed as well.  It was a complete surprise to the Republican House committee members that the Republican Senate members would oppose the Ipson Map.

The meeting was also spiced up with a very vitriolic and confrontational presentation by the Utah Democratic Lawyers Council.  You can listen to this outlandish tirade HERE. (The fun starts about halfway through the meeting.)  He didn't win any converts but he did succeed in antagonizing everyone.

It appears that the Senate strategy was to support their Senate colleague in a back-handed way by supporting the McAdams map while knowing that the House member of the committee would vote it down.  Vise versa for the Ipson Map.

This strategy left the only viable option for debate being the so-called Sumsion Map which is not as palatable to the House but is liked by the Senate.

They rest of the day was spent waiting for stakeholders to figure out which tweaks and adjustments were acceptable to make both the House and Senate happy.

Late in the evening we met to wrangle with how to handle this situation, our caucus dismissed at 10:15pm.

The Verdict: We will draw new maps, hold new public hearings, and vet maps until we find one that the House and Senate can agree on.  We will reconvene October 18th.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Introducing Utah House District 9 Version 2.0

The votes were cast and with only one dissenting vote by a Democratic legislator, the new Utah House Map was passed into law this evening.

This is the map of the new District 9.  It will encompass a significant portion of Downtown Ogden but also now spreads west where a lot of the population growth occurred in Weber County. It will include the communities of West Haven and a portion of Roy.   

I look forward to meeting the voters of these neighborhoods and establishing new relationships with the residents of these communities. 

Welcome to District 9!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

U.S. Congressional Map: Mr. Peterson's Option 1

I have attempted to draw my own congressional map.  Unfortunately, the site would not accept my map.  Therefore, I have chosen to publish it here instead.  I think this is a map we all can agree on:

Hopefully I can present this to the redistricting committee to spur some serious discussion. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Thoughts on 9/11

It always seems that decennial anniversaries harbor special meaning.  In many ways, it is the year that we determine whether the event we remember is going to have lasting meaning into the future; or, whether it is going to fade into insignificance in our memories and be replaced by some new event or anniversary.

I got a call the morning of September 11, 2001 from my mother.  I happened to be at home instead of school that morning.  She told me that two planes had struck the World Trade Center and I turned on our TV to watch the events of that day unfold. 

My father is an airline pilot and I accumulated tens of thousands of frequent flier miles growing up as the child of an airline pilot.  The cabin of an airliner is a fixed part of my life experience.  I could only imagine the horror that the passengers must have experienced as their planes were hijacked, and then the gut-wrenching realization at the last moment that they were not going back to the airport as they had been misled to believe by their captors.

I listened to the audio tapes released this last week that show how the events unfolded from an air traffic control perspective.  You can hear the chilling voices of the terrorists as they key the mic and instruct the passengers to remain seated. A struggle and screams in a cockpit are also heard.
Although unsettling, I found that this sobering record sharpened my focus and caused me to ponder.

It is important that we remember 9/11 for what it was.  As a nation, we are only as strong as our people.  May we take a moment of introspection this year.  May we resolve to carry on the American tradition of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  May we make ourselves a better people and better nation as we improve our own individual spiritual foundations.   As we do so, perhaps the circumstances and forces that combined to bring about this past tragedy will be turned to our favor  and require less of our life and treasure to prevent a future tragedy than is the case today. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ogden Utah Businesses Innovate and Succeed

I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of leaders in education, government, and business this week to discuss economic development in Ogden, Utah.  The meeting was hosted by Weber State University and USTAR.  We learned some fascinating things about how state funds are opening the door for new technologies and innovations.

We were presented with several success stories related to innovations in technology.  The first example we were presented with was the story of the PreventisMedical company and its saline solution product which is branded as Respia.  At McKay Dee hospital in Ogden, one of the doctors there noticed that infections were occurring when infants with respiratory problems were placed in the NICU and fitted with traditional respiration devices.  What he discovered was that the saline solution that hospitals use to clean the equipment was caustic to the infant's airways and created an environment for infection.  With the help of the pharmacist in the hospital basement, a new solution was created and tested on infants in the NICU.  The result was a dramatic decrease in infections and post hospital stay complications.

Obviously, this new product has broad applications across the medical industry.  However, the doctor nor the hospital had experience in taking product innovations to the marketplace.  That is when McKay Dee Hospital created a partnership with Weber State University.  By utilizing a minimal USTAR grant, they were able to create a business plan to then receive venture capital funds from the private funding market.

The Respia product was created in April 2010 and the company will be turning its first profit in the next few months.  The product has just recently gained access to the largest distributors of medical equipment in the United States and will be available nationwide shortly.

The great news is the owners expect the business to create 30 to 50 jobs.

Another success story was related to the company Enve which is located at the Ogden airport.  This company recently relocated its operations from the UK to Ogden, Utah.  They are builders of carbon composite biking materials.  Their operations have increased to the point that they are seeking more space in the Ogden area to accommodate their growth.

Finally, we discussed a new venture being sponsored by Weber State University and USTAR to bring more entrepreneurial talent to Ogden in the software and computer programing field.  The proposal (branded as Apps Inc.) involves using small seed grants (that may be repaid upon profitability) to induce small up-and-coming software companies to relocate to the Ogden area.  Upon arrival, the businesses will be teamed with the business development arm of Weber State University to further develop and monetize their product in preparation for it being taken to market.   WSU Vice Provost (and successful entrepreneur) Alex Lawrence will be heading the effort.  This program will draw new jobs in the innovative software development industry.  

It's exciting to see these local businesses growing and innovating despite a challenged economic environment.  This is the kind of ingenuity and entrepreneurialism that warrants our support.  Certainly, these businesses' success is a testament to the Utah worth ethos.  

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Mr. Peterson's Portraits: Little People Art

Yesterday my 4-year old daughter was drawing some interesting characters.  After looking at her work, I told her "You need to draw a picture of your dad."  Well, it appears that my other daughters heard me say that. When I returned from visiting another congregation today, my wife informed me that our daughters had each rendered their depictions of me during sacrament meeting.

Portrait # 1
Spider Legs Dad by Esther Peterson (Age 3)

Notice the grumpy mouth.  Esther explained that I was mad at her in this picture.  She must have been remembering me during her bedtime when she routinely gets out her toys and runs around after we turn the lights out.  Yes, dad does get grumpy when that happens.

Portrait # 2
T-Shirt Dad by Sophie Peterson (age 4)

Sophie was the one I originally asked to draw a picture of me.  I was a bit confused because it looks like I am wearing a dress or a moo moo.  Sophie explained "Dad is wearing a T-shirt."  It appears that she confused me with her because when I give Sophie my T-shirts to wear for pajamas, this is what they look like on her...not me.  The letter "A" was a mystery also.  When we asked what it stood for she said "It stands for AAAAAH!"

Portrait # 3
?????? by Wynnie Peterson (age 7)

No questions were asked and no explanation was offered by our daughter Wynnie.  I am glad my teeth seem to be in good shape...all of them.

Portrait #4
Podium Pounding Papa by Hannah Peterson (age 9)

Obviously the most life like and proportional.  Hannah said "Here you go dad!", handed this to me and ran off.

I will take a crack at drawing pictures of them and posting them in the future.  We'll see who gets the last laugh.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Affluent, The Extravegant, The Absurd: Mr. Veblen's Classic Critique

I recently finished reading Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.  It is a fascinating look into the social mores and norms of the wealthy during the late Victorian era and how their behavior affected society at large.  His book was published in 1899.

The book is definitely heavy reading and it took me quite some time to digest its 258 pages.  However, it was well worth the time invested and has enlightened my perspectives regarding how the world works and often continues to work despite the date on the calendar.  

The book is a mixture of thoughtful insight sprinkled with rapier wit and cutting criticism.

Here are some interesting quotes:

Regarding Desire for Wealth

"Visible success becomes an end sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem."

"[Man's goal] is the conversion to his own ends of energies previously directed to some other end by another agent."

"The motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation."

"Those members of the community who fall short...suffer in esteem of their fellowmen; and consequently they suffer also in their own esteem...apparent exceptions to the rule are met with, especially among people with strong religious convictions."

"In any community where goods are held in severalty it is necessary, in order to ensure his own peace of mind, that an individual should possess as large a portion of goods as others with whom he is accustomed to class himself; and it is extremely gratifying to possess something more than others.  But as fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did.  The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth."

Regarding Presentation of Wealth Through Action

"In order to gain and hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power.  The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence."

"Few of us, if any, can dissociate an offense against etiquette from a sense of the substantial unworthiness of the offender.  A breach of faith may be condoned, but a breach of decorum cannot."

"The pervading principle and abiding test of good breeding is the requirement of a substantial and patent waste of time."

Regarding Presentation of Wealth Through Consumption

"Unproductive consumption of goods is honorable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity."

"Infirmities induced by over indulgence are among some peoples freely recognized as manly attributes."

"The only practicable means of impressing one's pecuniary ability on these unsympathetic observers of one's everyday life is an unremitting demonstration of ability to pay."

"If the canon of conspicuous consumption were not offset to a considerable extent by other features of human nature, alien to it, any saving should logically be impossible..."

Regarding Living a Wealthy Lifestyle

"It is notoriously just as difficult to recede from a "high" standard of living as it is to lower a standard which is already relatively low; although in the former case the difficulty is a moral one,

"In the rare cases where it occurs, a failure to increase one's visible consumption when the means for an increase are at hand is felt in popular apprehension to call for explanation, and unworthy motives of miserliness are imputed to those who fall short in this respect."

"The standard of expenditure which commonly guides our an ideal of consumption that lies just beyond our reach; or to reach which requires some strain."

"With the exception of the instinct of self-preservation, the propensity for emulation is probably the strongest and most alert and persistent of the economic motives proper."

Regarding the Wealthy Standards of Taste

"The thief or swindler who has gained great wealth by his delinquency has a better chance than the small thief of escaping the rigorous penalty of the law; and some good repute accrues to him from his increased wealth and from his spending the irregularly acquired possessions in a seemly manner."

"...the hand wrought spoon gratifies our taste, our sense of the beautiful while that made by machinery out of the base metal has no useful office beyond a brute efficiency."

"The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty."

"What productive use [a race horse] may possess, in the way of enhancing the well being of the community or making the way of life easier for men, takes the form of exhibitions of force and facility of motion that gratify the popular aesthetic sense."

Regarding Dressing In a Wealthy Way

" no other point is the sense of shabbiness so keenly felt as it is if we fall short of the standard set by social usage in this matter of dress."

"The need of dress is eminently a 'higher' or spiritual need."

"Even more strikingly than the everyday habit of the priest, the vestments, properly so called, are ornate, grotesque, inconvenient, and, at least ostensibly, comfortless to the point of distress."

Regarding Institutions and the Affect of the Wealthy on Society

"The evolution of social structure has been a process of natural selection of institutions."

"Institutions are, in substance, prevalent habits of thought with respect to particular relations and particular functions of the individual and of the community."

"Institutions are the products of the past process, are adapted to past circumstances, and are therefore never in full accord with the requirements of the present."

" virtue of its high position as the avatar of good form, the wealthier class comes to exert a retarding influence upon social development far in excess of that which the simple numerical strength of the class would assign it."

"...privation among the body of the people is a serious obstacle to any innovation."

Regarding Foundational Traits of the Wealthy

"Freedom from scruple, from sympathy, honesty, and regard for human life, may, within fairly wide limits, be said to further the success of an individual in the pecuniary culture.  The highly successful men of all times have commonly been of this type."

"The lawyer is exclusively occupied with the details of predatory fraud, either in achieving or in checkmating chicanery..."

"[Industrial society's best interest is served by] honesty, diligence, peacefulness, good will, an absence of self seeking, and an habitual recognition and apprehension of causal sequence..."

Regarding Attitudes of the Wealthy

"[Regarding spiritual maturing] those who fail on the average remain as an undissolved residue of crude humanity in the modern industrial community."

"[College sports are] expressions of an attitude of emulative ferocity...deliberately entered upon with a view to gaining repute for prowess."

"The addiction of sports, therefore, in a peculiar degree marks an arrested development of the man's moral nature."

"The leisure class canon demands strict and comprehensive futility; the instinct of workmanship demands purposeful action."

Regarding The Wealthy and Devout Observances

"A believer is eminently a person who knows how to obey and accept chastisement with good grace."

"In economic theory, sacred holidays are obviously to be construed as a season of vicarious leisure performed for the divinity or saint in whose name the tabu is imposed and to whose good repute the abstention from useful effort on these days is conceived to inure."

"It is not ordinarily in good form for the priestly class to appear well fed or in hilarious spirits."

"The leisure class acts to conserve, and even to rehabilitate, that archaic type of human nature and those elements of the archaic culture which the industrial evolution of society in its later stages acts to eliminate."

"A still more characteristic and more pervasive alien element in the motives which have gone to formally uphold the scheme of devout life is that non reverent sense of the aesthetic congruity with the environment which is left as a residue of the latter-day act of worship after elimination of its anthropomorphic content."

"...the generation which follows a season of war is apt to witness a rehabilitation of the element of status, both in its social life and it its scheme of devout observances and other symbolic or ceremonial forms."

Regarding the Wealthy and Attitudes Toward Education

"Athletics have an obvious advantage over the classics for the purpose of leisure class learning, since success as an athlete presumes, not only a waste of time, but also a waste of money, as well as the possession of certain highly unindustrial archaic traits of character and temperament."


It appears that Mr. Veblen never played ball much.  However, the quotes do make me chuckle even if I disagree with some of his points.  Some of his insights are dead on though, especially regarding human nature and our desire to compare ourselves to one another.  I am impressed with his comments regarding institutions never being adequate for present needs.  As a Legislator, I agree with this assessment.  I highly recommend this book.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Video of the Day: Gold and Money

I found this very interesting video online:

The question to ask is: What would the economy look like if we returned to the gold standard? (FYI: We likely won't see that for a very long time into the future.)

The answer is slow deflation. Since gold is limited in supply, as population grows, wages and the price of goods continually drop as the supply of gold (or gold-backed currency) is spread out among more people as a use of exchange.

Anyway, the video is fodder for good conversation.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Special Session July 2011: Booze, Budgets, and Ballets

Interim session was held today and we discussed several issues:

Utah's Looming $5 Billion Hole - During Conservative Caucus meeting this morning Rep. Ken Ivory gave us an overview of the looming budget problems that will coming down the road.  Of Utah's $12 Billion budget, $5 Billion are funds received from the Federal Government in the form of block grants and other types of payments.  With the Federal Government soon to be forced into austerity measures, state and municipal governments will be the first to feel the reduction in money flows.  Interestingly, the ratings agencies on Wall Street recently warned the state of Utah that it will need to prepare for this scenario.  The agencies were shocked to learn that we had already passed HB 138 during the 2011 general session which creates a plan for our state government to operate in the event that Federal money becomes unavailable.  The passage of this bill has helped Utah maintain is 'AAA' bond rating.  Regardless, it was felt among the body that our Federal deficit and debt problems will be affecting Utah and the States in the very near future. 

"Preferential Balloting" - In committee meeting this morning we discussed the possibility of using a rare form of "preferential ballot"  It's main purpose would be to be used when more than two candidates appeared on a ballot.  It would allow voters to rank their preferences and allow for quick elimination of inferior candidates and to give a clear majority victory to one candidate.  One of the reasons to use such a system would be to reduce "spoiler" candidates (i.e. Green Party, Constitution Party, Ross Perot) from causing victories to be established by plurality rather than a majority.  Unfortunately, our current voting system does not provide for voting in this manner and the cost to purchase a new voting system would be at least $26 Million.

Board and Commission Review - Our committee also agreed to submit a survey to all boards and commissions established by state government to identify efficiency and effectiveness so we can identify any consolidation and cuts that can occur.  Surveys will be mailed to 252 committees and boards that taxpayers are funding.

Government Optimization - Efforts are constantly being made to improve state government.  We learned today that state employees are paid 17% less than the private sector while receiving benefits that are 20% superior to the private sector.  Adjustments to state employees compensation were suggested.    It was also proposed that the number of cabinet level agencies be reduced from 21 to just 7.

FLUB OF THE DAY - Mike Mowers : "The governor wants every state employee focused on growing government."

Interesting Special Session Bills:

HB 2002 - Prison Relocation and Development Authority Act Amendments -  This bill deals with how the state will sell its 800 acre prison facility located in Draper, Utah. Due to the unique situation and the political sensitivity of such a transaction, this bill provides that the Legislature (and thus vicariously the people of the state) approve the sale of the property to any developer that submits a satisfactory proposal.

HB 2003 - Insurance Amendments - This bill provided some technical changes and gives insurers in the state some flexibility in how they craft policies to meet the needs of their customers.  There was a debate on the floor about the context of the bill.  It appears that the insurance industry has become so mired in regulation that changes in the law have ripple affects across the entire industry and interfere with other regulations.  The questions on this bill were regarding whether it would create insurance products that are "in" the state exchange system and also "out" of the system simultaneously.  The bill passed both the Hosue and Senate today.

SCR 201 - Resolution Supporting the United States Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment - The title is self explanatory.  We passed this resolution to send a message to Washington D.C. that we expect our nation to keep it's fiscal house in order like Utah does each year.  This bill passed today.  

SB 2002 -  Alcoholic Beverage Control Act Amendments - This bill fixed some of the unintended consequences that occurred when we passed legislation earlier this year.  The bill corrects some conflict of interest problems, religious permit usage, and licensing details.  The bill passed 60-0.

Ogden School District - Finally, in Majority Caucus meeting today, Ogden School District was mentioned and received applause from much of the room for its initiative to work toward performance pay.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ogden School District vs. UEA - KSL SUNDAY

The Ogden School District performance pay debate continues...

Bruce Lindsay does an excellent job asking pointed and direct questions.  Superintendent Zabriskie does an excellent job handling those questions.  In trying to get her message across, Ms. Gallagher-Fishbaugh seems to become mired in legal jargon that was probably lost on most of the audience.   (Click Segment 2 to watch) 

Video Courtesy of

It appears that the Ogden Education Association was asleep at the wheel while allowing the teachers to operate without a contract this past school year.  The union seems to recognize the implications of that mistake and is now demanding a last minute renegotiation.  I am curious how this dynamic would appear if the School District and UEA changed seats.  Would the UEA be as amenable to watering down its negotiating advantage as it is asking the Ogden School District to be today?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

COURAGE! Ogden School District Goes Performance Pay

In a courageous step, the Ogden City School District has contractually initiated a paradigm shift in teacher compensation toward performance pay.   This is a first-of-its-kind move and I believe warrants public support. 

Teachers who wish to stay and renew their contract with the Ogden School District under this new paradigm can do so by July 20th.  Here is a copy of the letter issued by the district:

For the facts, here is a video of Superintendent Zabriskie speaking to the Standard Examiner editorial board:   

It is quite remarkable to hear the reaction from the union chiefs at the Ogden Education Association.  The recent Standard Examiner article on this issue contains some interesting quotes:

Doug Stephens, president of the Ogden Education Association, one of the organizations representing teachers in negotiations, said he is shocked.
“It is unprecedented in the state of Utah,” Stephens said. “It’s crazy. No school district or school board has ever done this before. This is a horrible thing.”

Well, even Christopher Columbus had his skeptics.  He goes on:

"So the NEA, President Obama and Congress have all been trying to figure out a fair system of performance pay, and no one has been able to come up with a system that is equitable, but a few board members and administrators in Ogden just magically have the answers?” Stephens said.
“There’s going to be a mass exodus of quality teachers, and they may not be replaced with the same kind of exceptional teachers that can change a kid’s whole outlook and make him feel better about himself,” he said.
“We are losing teachers right now, over the summer. Teachers are not going to stay in a district when they can get paid $3,000 or $4,000 (more) in another district.”
Stephens said there is a false impression, created by the media, that teachers and their representative groups are greedy. He said Ogden School District teachers have not asked for a raise in recent years and have gone without step increases for three years straight.

Note To Self:  If President Obama and Congress can't get something done, then it's certainly not worth doing and it should never be thought of or tried by anyone else.

Tangential thoughts: Is it our public schools' job to teach self esteem?  Or is it to prepare for higher education and the job market?  Does self esteem come before or after being educated with the proper skills?  Where does a parent's responsibility end and the school district's begin?

Additionally, is Ogden School district really going to have trouble finding folks when they put a "Now Hiring" sign on the front lawn?  Granted, not every person can be a teacher but I am sure there are qualified folks out there who will jump at the opportunity.  Looking for a job now? Here is a list of job opportunities currently.  

Also, in regards to "step increases" (or "pay raises" as the private sector calls them) I am sure most of the taxpayers in our state have not recieved a pay raise in the last three years.

Yet, do we need to pay teachers more?  I believe we do.  However, we need to do it with the money that we have.  It's remarkable that teacher salaries were preserved at their current levels despite the severe contraction in tax revenues during the past several years.  Let's be grateful for what we have.

My hat is off to the Superintendent and the School Board for their willingness to innovate and work for change in the School District.  They have shown leadership and they have my support as I hope they do yours.

Monday, July 4, 2011

George Washington: Americans Make Their Own Bed

"The foundation of our empire was not founded in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition, but at an epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the reserches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of philosphers, sages, and legislatures, through a long successsion of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected widsom may be happily applied in the establishment of our forms of government; the free cultivation of letters, the unbounded extension of commerce, the progressive refinement of manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and bove all, the pure and benign light of revelation, have had ameliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessing of society. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a nation, and if the citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own"

     - George Washington Circular to the States

Friday, July 1, 2011

State Government Shutdown: Minnesota's Mess

The state of Minnesota's government shut down today due to an impass on fixing a $5 Billion budget deficit.  The governor wanted to increase taxes and cut spending.  The legislature wanted to just cut spending and not increase taxes.

Here is the governor's finger pointing statement:

I found this statement amusing:

Governor: "Our American Revolution was very much about fair and just taxes, where the middle class was over taxed while the very rich went tax free."

My Rebuttal: So his answer is to tax the rich more so the overtaxed middle class feel better? I don't hear of any tax relief for the middle class in this speech.

Instead of promising to continue working toward a budget solution the good governor engages in class warfare.

He states that he cannot accept a Minnesota where:

  • People with disabilities loose part of the time they are cared for...
  • Young people cannot afford the rising tuition and University of Minnesota...
  • Elderly widows are denied at the "At Home" services...
  • Where local governments have to further slash their firefighters and police forces...
  • Where special education is being cut...
"...So millionaires do not have to pay one dollar more in taxes.  That is not Minnesota."

This speech highlights struggles that are going on in many other poorly managed states in the country.  I am grateful that Utah is not one of them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

June Interim Session: Fire Escapes, Waste, Mission Creep, and Child Care Conundrum

I attended our interim session committee meetings today at the Capitol.  Unlike last month, the agenda this time was full of interesting topics and lively discussion.

HB138 - Federal Receipts Reporting Requirements

One of the bills we discussed this morning is HB 138 sponsored by Ken Ivory.  We passed this bill during the general session.  The gist of the bill is to require state agencies to create operation plans for scenarios involving a 5% and 25% reduction in overall available budget.  The point is that $5 Billion of our $12 Billion state budget comes from Federal sources.  Given the ill health of our national fiscal situation, we want to have plans in place for the time when Federal funds are no longer dispersed to the states.  This is a basic self-reliance plan.

Today we discussed implementation and how it would affect city and county governments and how we might go about requiring cities and counties to make contingency plans as well.  The representative from the League of Cities and Towns was there to speak on behalf of the interest of cities and towns in the state.  His message: "Thanks, but we can put plans together quite easily so there really isn't a need for us to report our compliance to you."  I am always suspicious when someone says they will do something and then asks that they not be bothered reporting on whether they did it or not.  With 200 municipal bankruptcies anticipated nationwide in the next year or two, complying with HB 138 even once every two or three years is probably not asking very much. 

You can listen to the entire meeting HERE

Unemployment Insurance

The next topic of lively discussion came as we talked about the status of unemployment insurance in the state.  The trust fund that makes up the insurance base has fallen from over $800 million in 2008 to a projected $130 million next year.  The state has been dispensing much more than it has been bringing in.

Benefit payments of unemployment insurance in Utah are the 16th highest in the nation with 50% of recipients using the full 26 weeks of payments that the state offers.  Also, we discovered that the state routinely over pays benefits by about 6% of total disbursements and only collects on half of that through court action and sanctions.  That basically means that 3% of our unemployment insurance goes to line the pockets of those who don't need it.  It's wasted tax dollars.    

The gentleman presenting on this issue talked about all the "stimulus" that unemployment insurance gives to the economy.  One of my colleagues challenged that notion since the government is basically taxing businesses so it can pay people not to work.  This is an issue that needs to be looked at more closely. 

Displaced Homemakers

After our rancorous interrogation on the unemployment insurance topic, we were treated to a supposedly less controversial topic: The Dispalced Homemakers program.  Well, at least the presenter thought it would be less controversial. 

The program has been going on for 10 years and is under the umbrella of Workforce Services.  Since the program is scheduled to sunset this year, they approached our committee today to ask for another 10 years of existence. The gist of the program is to help homemakers (non gender specific) who have been out of the workforce for eight or more years to reacquire skills so they can rejoin the work force.  This sounds like a nice idea except for one thing: the program doesn't have enough people to help.

The program has been mostly over funded for 10 years by 15%-20%.  Those funds have just been kept and kicked forward to future budgets.  Since they were having so much trouble finding people to help, the presenter alluded to the idea that they would ask us to modify the requirements to expand the reach of their program.  When I asked her what she had in mind, she thought they would reduce the requirement from eight years to two.

In my mind, this is mission creep.  If tax dollars have proven not to be useful for their intended purpose, perhaps we should refund the taxpayers who are footing the bill for this ineffective program.  I also suspect there may be duplication and redundancy in other programs the state offers though I can't provide any specifics.  We do know that the private sector is providing services like this also.

When the vote came to extend the sunset, the committee, including myself, voted no.  Workforce Services will now be compelled to find a sponsor who will put forward a bill next year to keep this program alive.

Public vs. Private Child Care Debate

Finally, we heard from a colleague on the touchy issue of the child care industry.  There are private child care providers who are licensed, taxed, and regulated.  Then there are non-profits and publicly subsidized child care facilities that compete directly in the market for money in this industry.  The question proposed today is about the justice of having tax dollars compete for services provided by the public sector.  It was a very interesting debate and I encourage you to listen.  You will be surprised by what you learn.  We will be discussing this more in the coming months.

You can listen to the lively discussion on Unemployment Insurance, Displaced Homemakers, and Child Care issues HERE (my comments start at 1:12:29).