Wednesday, May 30, 2012

2012 Legislator Ratings

The Salt Lake Tribute has created a composite ratings chart based on numbers issued from various special interest groups who track legislator's voting records.  This composite is designed to  attempt to illustrate the conservative vs. liberal spectrum that is represented in the Legislature via the voting record.

Here is the chart (click to enlarge):

There are a couple interesting take-away points from viewing this chart:

1.  The majority of the freshman class of 2010 (which includes myself) land between the 64%-80% conservative rating.

2.  10 of the 15 most conservative legislators are from Utah County. 

These kinds of charts make for interesting conversation but I don't give much heed to them.  However, I did hear of a legislator who supposedly voted intentionally to boost scorecard results.  If true, I find that to be a particularly jaded and self-serving approach to voting.  Yet, ironically, this  individual will not will be serving in 2013.  So, perhaps it is not so self-serving after all.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

VIDEO: Utah Highway Patrol DUI Blitz - Memorial Day 2012

The Utah Highway Patrol invited me to ride along with them on their Memorial Day Weekend DUI Blitz this year.  I accepted their offer.

I found the experience very enlightening.  I have to pay tribute to these men and women who execute the laws that we write and deal with many uncomfortable, unpleasant, and often dangerous situations.  It helped remind me of  the importance of writing meaningful and equitable laws.  The whims of the Legislature can have significant consequences for those who enforce our laws and those they are being enforced upon.

I created a video of my experience:


My ride began in the K-9 unit and after our first DUI bust, I was transferred to another vehicle to continue our evening's pursuit.  Thank you to the officers that put up with my longwindedness and persistent questions.  It was a fascinating experience and a great diversion that educated me at the same time.

Friday, May 25, 2012

INEQUITY: Politics and Felony Population Distribution

During a March committee hearing about a bill that addressed Good Landlord Programs in the State, a comment was made by a member of the Ogden City administration about the need for the program.  It was declared that the program was specifically created to help mitigate the large felony population that the State dumps in Ogden via State run halfway houses.  The claim was made that over half of the State run halfway houses are in Ogden.

I was shocked by this claim.  When our Session ended, I came home and started to do some research to check the veracity of the comment.  What I found surprised me.

As it turns out, the State of Utah isn't doing Weber County any favors when it comes to equally distributing inmates in halfway houses.  Here are some charts to illustrate:

As you can see, Weber County comprises just 8.24% of the State's population.  Salt Lake County accounts for 36.7%.

So how is the halfway house inmate population distributed?  Queue the chart please...

As you can see, Weber County has 46% of all the halfway house beds in the state.  What an onerous distinction!

Amazingly, all of this burden is concentrated in one robust facility located on Watertower Way near I-15 and 24th Street.

Built in 1996, this facility has many resources under one roof to serve a host of inmate rehabilitation needs.  On the surface, the State and the taxpayer seem to be getting some economies of scale with this facility. Yet, lurking in the shadows are some significant and unintended consequences from creating such a large facility.

Among those are a decrease in inmate rehabilitation.  Indeed, success rates at the Weber County NUCCC facility are just 48%. I toured the facility with staff and interviewed them on their perceptions of the system. They agreed that smaller facilities are more successful in rehabilitation than larger ones because smaller facilities create a tighter family atmosphere where inmates become invested in each other's success.  Large facilities create anonymity and a warehouse atmosphere.  Thus, success is impeded.  That lack of success has a dollar tag attached to it in the form of prolonged incarcerations, property loss and damage from reoffending, and increased law enforcement costs to capture and prosecute reoffenders.

Another drawback is that while the State as a whole may obtain efficiencies in scale for the facility, the community in which it is placed must deal with the population that leaves the facility.  It is commonly asserted that offenders return to their hometowns after leaving a halfway house facility.  Data from a 2003 study shows that this is not true.    Here are the results of that study:

 As you can see, almost 20% of inmates that arrive from other areas STAY in Ogden after their release.  Over time, this net gain in felony population affects the quality of life in the surrounding community.  Hence, Ogden's pioneering of the Good Landlord Program.

So what is to be done?  In talking about the issue with my legislative colleauges, there appear to be  several daunting challenges to changing the status quo.

First, the NIMBY (not in my back yard) sentiment is very strong.  Obviously, any reduction in the number of beds in Ogden would mean an increase in beds somewhere else.  It's like trying to find a friendly harbor for spent nuclear waste.  Most of my colleagues who I spoke to about this issue vowed to vote against any change because they didn't want to tell their constituents they supported bringing felons to their neighborhood.

Second, the infrastructure costs are very expensive.  In a time when our capital maintenance and expenditures are under strain, spending new money on acquiring and building new facilities is politically difficult to justify in light of other demands for taxpayer money (i.e. education).

I find my colleagues' sentiments discouraging.  It would be ideal for communities to take care of their own inmates locally.  The small scale would promote success and the budget would be of small impact in the long run.  Also, since the NUCCC facility in Weber County is so new, it will likely be a decade or more before it obsolesces and new funds can be justified to create a new facility.  Whenever that occurs though, that will be the time to strike on this issue.

In the meantime, let's hope that there is a paradigm shift in correction circles of how our inmates should be distributed across the State.  If we are seriously interested in successful rehabilitation of our inmate population, this needs to happen.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Show Me The Money: Utah Government Spending 2012

The State of Utah has a giant budget of over $12 Billion.  The Legislature is tasked with appropriating these funds to various departments and programs to keep government operating.

Of course, there is always the political component of determining which programs should be funded and which ones should not.  For example, during interim session in 2011, a program director came to us asking to extend their funding another 10 years when they weren't even using half of the budget they had been allocated.  Our committee decided not only to prevent an extension but also moved to stop funding the program altogether.

During the General Session there are many Appropriation Subcommittees which specialize in various departments of government and the funding for such.  I happen to sit on the Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.

For those of you interested in where your tax dollars were spent this last year, here is the report:

    Utah State Fiscal Year 2013 Appropriations Report

Monday, May 7, 2012

VIDEO: Political Neutrality of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Explained

Being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints while also participating in politics has been an awkward dual role to acclimate too.  Much of the awkwardness has to do with respecting the political neutrality of the Church while at the same time participating in church activities and fellowship.

I can recall many times when members of my congregation would come up to me in a church hallway and say, "Hey, what do you think about [X] issue?".  I think people are naturally curious and excited to discuss issues, regardless of the venue, especially when someone they know is involved in the process.

Nevertheless, when spending most of my days at the State Capitol during the General Session and then returning home for weekend worship, I strive to be extra careful in filtering my comments about daily life in a way that avoids discussing political issues.  I also ask that people call me "Brother" Peterson rather than "Representative" when at church. 

As a reminder for faithful LDS folks and perhaps some new information for those who are not of the faith, here is a video animation that articulates the role of the church and its members in the realm of politics:


As we head toward election season, may our discourse we civil and held in the appropriate venues.