Saturday, November 21, 2015

Interim Session November 2015: Power, Perverts, Ethics, Taxes, and Refugees

We just completed a last round of interim committee meetings before the General Session begins in January 2016.  In this last round of meetings we discussed several potent subjects that are in the headlines and on the minds of the public.  We also discussed several potential bills to be heard during the General Session.  Here is a summary of items I thought were worth mentioning.

Power to the People

One bill that we heard in morning committee dealt with the public's ability to overturn legislation.  The vehicle the public has to do this is called a public referendum. Currently, if the Legislature enacts a wildly unpopular law, the people can follow steps to initiate a public referendum which places the law on a ballot to be voted up or down directly by the people.  If I recall correctly, the last law that this happened to was the Legislature's creation of school vouchers in 2007.  The education community rallied and successfully overturned that law.

In the bill we heard, Representative Brian Greene wants to expand the referendum power so that it applies to cities, school boards, special service districts, and any other legislative body at the local level.  I support his effort.  The referendum power acts as a check against laws that may simply be too difficult to tolerate until the next election cycle where the elected officials can be replaced the law reversed through the normal course.

Unfortunately, it appears the bill sponsor did not speak with the cities, school boards, specials service districts and others that would be affected by enactment of this law.  They showed up to testify at our committee that hey had just been made aware of the bill.  With that in mind, I voted against the bill so that these entities were given a fair amount of time to review the policy and share their informed perspective.  Had the bill received a unanimous vote at our committee, it would have been heard on the first day of the session with little debate. The few dissenting votes from our committee insure that the bill is heard at committee again and that all sides of the issues can be assessed before a vote.  I look forward to supporting the bill (even if it is refined) when it gets to the Floor for a vote.

SB 54 - Scrambled Eggs Election Law and Ethics

Last month the Republican Caucus moved to support an option of making changes to SB54 to provide clarity to the signature gathering process and also clarify dates for filing for office.  However, one of the provisions of the changes would permit "in-kind" campaign contributions to be made during the General Session.  The law prohibits any type of contribution during the General Session currently.

I felt that this was a major setback (even if only in perception) to the public's confidence in our political system to run as ethically as possible.  So, I had some constructive criticism while the bill was being presented.  You can hear the dialogue at committee here where I voice my opinion.  My more salient comments are around the 4:00 mark although the whole snippet is worth hearing:

Ultimately, a motion was made and the words allowing in-kind contributions were stricken from the bill by a slim margin.  Yet, the bill passed the committee and will be heard early during the General Session.  My complaint is not about "in-kind" contributions (typically services, like signature gathering, that are performed in lieu of cash donations) being performed during the General Session. My main concern is that the negotiation of those contributions during the Session creates clouds of doubt.  It can create the situation where contributors are tempted to make promises to donate based the performance of the Legislator.  We should never be having those kinds of conversations in such close proximity to voting. 

Ultimately, I expect the language to be clarified so that the contributions are solicited, negotiated, and reported before and after the General Session but the services the contribution represents may be performed during the General Session.   

Syrian Refugees

Another topic we discussed in our Republican Caucus was the Syrian Refugee issue.  In light of the Paris Massacre, doubt is being cast on the ability of our Federal Government to properly vet individuals coming from Syria to seek refuge in the United States.  I have my own doubts.  Many of us felt that Governor Herbert should publicly express concern over Syrian refugees coming to Utah to resettle until proper safe guards were put in place.  

My view has always been that the Middle East needs to deal with problems in the Middle East.  Many countries bordering Syria, including Turkey and Jordan, have refugee camps that provide housing and food for these people while the war is on going.  I suggested that instead of spending our state tax dollars on resettling Syrians here, we should contribute those funds to the organizations managing the camps abroad.  This would provide the humanitarian aid they need, while also providing for our immediate safety.  It is not the responsibility of The West to guarantee a First World standard of living to the rest of the world.  Yet, we can and should keep them from starving.
I believe we can be compassionate and common sensed about this issue.  

Taxes, Taxes, Taxes

As Vice-Chair of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, I get to hear a lot of interesting discussion on topics related to tax policy.

One bill we discussed would prevent taxpayers from being overcharged when "centrally assessed" properties decrease in value and then increase again.  Under current statute, the counties get to include any upper movement in value of these properties to the formula dictating taxes that you pay.  The concept is difficult to detail here but the proposal is liked by stakeholders on both sides of the issue.  Look for this bill to pass this next session.  

Another significant bill we heard dealt with the way corporations elect to be taxed by the State.  Depending on their business structure, they can chose between three different types of taxation.  The bill proposal we heard offers the "Single Sales Factor" method to more companies.  The effect is a tax decrease of up to $50 Million per year.  This decrease would be a giant incentive to bring more companies here to Utah with their capital and jobs.  It's a big proposal from Senator Howard Stephenson and we will see what happens with it in the General Session.  

Shoot'em Up and Taken'em Down

After our meetings concluded at the Capitol, we were invited by the Attorney General's Office to visit their facility and view some of their training and tactical equipment.  We heard from Sean Reyes how the AG's office is working with law enforcement agencies to help moderate the tone of police interactions with the public.  A lot of this effort is due to the ongoing disgruntlement of minority communities in how they view their treatment by law enforcement.

We were also introduced to some fantastic tools that the AG's office hopes to use with local agencies to help train officers in de-escalating volatile situations while also honing their marksman skills in difficult circumstances.  The tool they have for this an interactive video studio.

The scenario I faced involved active shooters at the local Megaplex Theater.  The guns they gave us had real recoil and limited ammo.  We had to shoot the shooters before they shot us or shot other civilians.  It was stressful to say the least.

We were also shown the Internet Crimes Against Children mobile forensics lab.   This elite team is tasked with catching perverts and abusers of children.  We discussed the inroads that child pornography is making into society and the impact that it is having on the community.  It is sad commentary to know that this is a real problem in our society.  It is even worse to know that this problem is growing ever larger.  Kudos to this elite team for their work in taking our most devious and dangerous predators out of circulation.

In summary, it was a busy but informative day.  The Republican Caucus meets again in December to discuss issues coming up for the General Session.