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.