Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Better Justice: HB 93 - Traffic Violations Amendments

A couple years ago, some constituents came to me who had friends that had died in traffic accidents.  The drivers that were cited for the accident were issued a "failure to yield" ticket for less than $100 and everyone went about their business as usual.  Given the gravity of the outcome of the accidents, we pursued some remedies by trying to enhance penalties on lethal incidents of moving violation on left hand turns.  That effort failed at committee due to its lack of consistency across the spectrum of traffic violations.

We let the issue sit for a couple years as we stewed on the question of how to address this perceived inequity.  Then while in a conversation with the Attorney General's office this year, we had a breakthrough.

The problem with accidents is that officers are required to cite someone at the scene and issue a ticket.  Sometimes, in major accidents, the parties to the accident are unconscious, in the ambulance, or sometimes deceased.  Instead of asking officers to cite someone at the scene of a fatal or major injury accident, we determined it would be better for them to collect all the witness and party testimony and then turn that in to prosecuting attorney to review.

This accomplishes a couple of things. First, it lets a third party with fresh eyes review the file to see if there were any circumstances that may have contributed to the crash and that may require further attention.  Such examples could be distracted driving, texting, etc.  If there are, the attorney can issue a citation or charge accordingly.  If not, and most accidents would likely fall into this category, the proper citation, if any at all, would be issued.   Second, this change allows the officer to focus less on finding fault and issuing a ticket and more on gathering good information at the scene through witness interviews and evidence gathering.      

Another provision included in this bill stipulates that a prosecuting attorney would also review any file where an accident is officer involved.  This would allow an impartial set of eyes to view this case without any undue pressure by the responding officer to avoid citing his co-worker involved in the accident.

Here is a copy of the bill:

Thursday, January 24, 2013

DISTOPIA: The Proper Role of Government In The Telecom Industry

The Utah Taxpayers Association asked me to speak briefly at their pre-session conference on the proper role of government as it relates to competing in the private sector and specifically in the telecom business.

Due to horrible road conditions at the time I started my commute from Ogden to the the Capitol, I was unable to make it to the meeting as planned. But, I still have my written statement which I will share here with you:

We all know that government is clumsy and inefficient. Especially our form of government, a democracy, by its very nature, is slow to change and often solves problems by small degrees and measures. So given such awkward but consistent results, we have to wonder why it would ever be a good idea for government to enter business competition against the private sector.

We have seen how poor results materialize when government ventures into arenas where it should not be. An example was illustrated recently by an audit report presented to the Legislature regarding municipal telecom systems. In that report we discovered that there were glaring deficiencies in how Utah municipalities had run their program and left the project high centered without sufficient funds to complete their task.

Meanwhile, taxpayers are left with an unfinished project and still paying on the bonds issued at the outset. The Legislature would be ill advised to risk moral hazard by bailing out these municipalities. Doing so would only encourage others entities to take their chances at the cost of Utah taxpayers. We also do not want to be throwing good money after bad. Therefore, we must make sure that responsibility for the debts incurred are limited to those who incurred them.

It is also important to note that Utah code prevents municipalities from subsidizing government telecom systems with taxpayer dollars. There has been some talk of softening these laws in order to help the municipality telecom systems become more competitive in the marketplace. Such efforts run contrary to free market principles and hurt taxpayers more than it helps them. Given such, the Legislature should oppose any efforts to weaken these provisions.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kwality Kontrol: HB 279 - Refugee Service Funds Amendments

Last year we made some significant changes to several departments of government and how they were structured.  In the big change, some technical details were overlooked.  HB 279 corrects some of those oversights and cleans up obsolete language found in the code.  Please hold your hate mail until after reading the whole bill.

Balance on the Rails: HB 70 - Utah Railroad Museum Amendments

Weber and Box Elder Counties are home to Utah's and the Western States' great railroad heritage.  When the golden spike was driven into the rails at Promontory in 1869, it set off a wave of development in Northern Utah that culminated in Ogden becoming one of the great cities of the era.

To protect this heritage, a state Railroad Museum Authority was established in 2010.  The Authority was designed make decisions to help preserve the story of the railroads and also make this aspect of Utah history available to the public.

The governing board was created by a Senator and Representative from Box Elder County.  Their intentions were good.  However, membership of the board was ultimately underrepresented by Weber County.  HB 70 corrects this uneven distribution of participants to adequately represent both counties on the governing board equitably.


Monday, January 14, 2013

Mr. Peterson's 2013 Legislative Survey

One of the great opportunities for feedback from constituents is our yearly survey.  This year's survey is quite a bit different from the others I have sent in the past.  Go ahead and take a read.

I received feedback from someone saying that the questions were too biased.  The questionnaire was not written by a statistician. Nor was it written by an intern as in past years.  As the author, you can blame me for any weaknesses (or humor) you read into this year's survey.  Nevertheless, it is a great opportunity for you to get a feel for the issues we are dealing with and send me your feedback about whatever is on your mind.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Mormonism, Utilitarianism, and the Void of Virtue

I recently finished reading John Stuart Mill's classic book Utilitarianism.  Written in the 1860's, it is a thought provoking defense of the ethical philosophy known by the title's name.  One of the concepts discussed in the book is the basis for which personal and policy decisions should be made.  What fundamental force should we find receiving credit as the great motivator of all our actions?  What is the ultimate outcome desired from the decisions that we make? These are good questions.

The book answers these questions by declaring that human decision making should not be made capriciously  guided by experience and observation alone nor the generalized way by ascribing a priori status to such matters.  Instead, Mill encourages followers of the Utilitarian philosophy to adopt what is called The Greatest Happiness Principle.  What is this principle?  It says that when deliberating which decision to make, the decision that brings about the greatest amount of happiness should the be one chosen.

As a Mormon, my worldview is informed by my faith.  Although Utilitarianism is an ethical philosophy rather than a theological one, I have found many instances of shared principles.  For instance, the Greatest Happiness principle coincides with Mormon scripture related to the meaning of life:

"Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy." (2Ne. 2:25 Book of Mormon)

So what is 'happiness'?  Mill describes happiness as virtue, intellectual development, and service to others.  He closely aligns the philosophy of Utilitarianism with the Golden Rule and to "love thy neighbor as thyself".

This view coincides with Virtue as a fundamental part of Mormon life described in the Articles of Faith:

We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

Indeed, growing the mind and elevating our level of virtue benefits all people.  Mill admits:

Utilitarianism could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character, even if each individual were only benefited by the nobleness of others.

In our day, we have no excuse not to be noble ourselves.  The knowledge and wisdom of all of human experience is free if we seek it out.  The local library is a good start.  All the greatest books ever written are free on Kindle as well.  The key is desire.  Mill elaborates on what happens when desire goes missing:

Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which thy have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.

One of the key focuses of Mormon living is an emphasis on teaching youth how to live according to correct principles.  It is one thing to know how to make a living; it is entirely something different to know how to live.  Nevertheless, teaching youth these "nobler" life principles was and is a challenge as recognized by Mill:

Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily does away if the occupations to which their positions in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise.  

With both Mormonism and Utilitarianism agreeing on many ethical and moral points, and as Utilitarianism has been a foundation of ethical philosophy in shaping policy decisions in State and Federal government, what are we to make of the cultural landscape today where the definition of happiness itself seems to be going through a revision?

It seems that the fundamental value in an ethical system like Utilitarianism is that it creates an objective ground on which to judge decisions.  Yet, in today's society, what is described as vice by some is treated as virtue by others.  We live in a time when social ills masquerade as 'progress'; when liberty is many times abused to licentiousness; and when morality is often dismissed as an out-dated relic followed by adherents of a tired superstition.

Under such conditions, the public discourse is more volatile and policy outcomes more unprecedented.  The rancor is in direct proportion to the divide in the public's view of this basic premise of happiness.  The less agreement there is on such fundamental definitions as virtue and vice, the more chaotic our pubic decision making becomes.

The antidote to this discord, I firmly believe, is to follow Utilitarianism's call to the virtue of yesteryear.  It is only through the hope and happiness that is vested in true virtue that society can build its foundation.  But it is not the responsibility of policy makers to compel this ideal into existence.  Instead, we must fill our thoughts and lives individually with virtue if we are to be a truly free and happy people.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Cliffhanger: Fiscal Freakout and Debt Dilemma

In Washington, it appears that the Senate, the House, and the President have come into an "agreement" on the Fiscal Cliff issue.  The Senate and the President kicked the can down the road (again) and the House begrudgingly surrenders while shaking its head wondering how this irresponsibility can persist.

I am unsatisfied with the reported results of the Fiscal Cliff deal and some in the media are blaming our process.  Yet,while this process is extremely sloppy and imperfect, it was designed by our Founders to be so.  Before we lose total faith in our government, perhaps a quote from Winston Churchill is appropriate:

 "Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." 

When three parties to a negotiation have veto power over each other, the results will be less than perfect;  especially when they are divided ideologically and so widely as we see in today's Federal government.

Nevertheless, some lessons can be drawn from observing the political dynamics in Washington.  The House is the body that is the closet to The People.  It was designed to be that way.  With short two year terms, voters have a very short leash on their Representatives.  If the Representative goes astray, the choke chain of voter discontent makes its correcting influence known.  If he goes astray too many times, he is replaced.  Thus, The House is the closest possible proximation of The Will of the People.

Supporters of The President have said that "elections have consequences."  Thus, implying that because the President was re-elected that his agenda has a mandate.  Yet, the entire House of Representatives was elected (or re-elected) as well, and this has consequences too.

So, with each body having equal veto power over the other in negotiations, the test is then of leadership and political acumen.  Seeing the results we have gotten, it is apparent who has it and who does not.

Moving on to our next fiscal crises of the debt ceiling debate, the President's recent remarks are of a man who presumes he is negotiating from a position of strength:

   "While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they passed."    
Does anyone else find these comments as insidious as I do?  Our Fiscal Cliff deal increases our debt.  The President and Senate compelled the House to pass his proposal, and then turns around and says, "You did this!  You fund it!"  This is truly disingenuous and a slap in the face by any account.  It is kindergarten playground politics: Nanny nanny boo boo!  

If the House of Representatives knows it's role, it will appeal to the people for support to reject deficit  increases and then act on it.  All of Utah's delegation including Rep. Jim Matheson (D) voted against this deficit deal except for Senator Orrin Hatch (R).  If Senator Hatch and the majority of America lack the will to stop ourselves from spending, market forces, via the bond vigilantes, will be much swifter and merciless in taking the purse away from us.  It is best we put our fiscal house in order before we are stripped and whipped by a ruthless bond market.