Friday, January 29, 2016

General Session 2016: Week 1


The first week of the general session was very interesting.  Of course, it wouldn't be the first day of the session without some fanfare.

Calvary Baptist Church sings The Battle Hymn of the Republic

We also heard The State of the Judiciary from Chief Justice Matthew Durrant.

The speech was very blunt and highlighted the need for the state to fund drug treatment in light of recent criminal justice reforms.  The state needs to fill a $16M funding hole to do that.  The gap was left after the Legislature opted not to fund Medicaid expansion last year.  Apparently, the Executive Branch's plan was to pass both court reform and Medicaid expansion last year and did not contemplate the possibility that expansion would not happen.  Fortunately, there are plans in the works right now to fund the treatment described by Chief Durrant.  I expect this issue to be resolved this Session.

Bill Bonanza

Our first week on the House Floor was also fairly uneventful except for the barrage of committee bills that were vetted and voted upon during the interim.  We heard over 30 bills that were unanimous in their committee votes and uncontroversial.  It was unusual to see so many bills voted upon without much debate due to their sheer mundanity.

Committee Crankiness

Since the Legislature is part time, the first week is a time for Representatives to yawn, stretch, and come out of hibernation.  This means it takes a little time to get back into the groove of parliamentary parlance, bureaucratic jargon, and political euphemism.

Interestingly, our Revenue and Taxation Committee, of which I am Vice-Chair, has a reputation for being a tough and smart committee that is used to handling the hard issues.  So, when our committee heard a couple lightweight bills for the first meeting, it didn't quite know how to handle them.  One bill, which was a simple repeal of an obscure requirement for a report that nobody ever read or cared about, took over 45 minutes of discussion before it passed.  I was next on the agenda with my Property Tax Valuation Notice by Email bill, a very easy issue, and we took over an hour wrestling with its nuances.  Then the committee inexplicably held the bill.  After watching this painful performance, other Representatives with items on the agenda that day ran for cover and asked to be bumped to another day rather than receive similar treatment.

Fortunately, this is a once-in-a-session experience.

Negotiation and Compromise

As all the issues advocated by various Representatives come to light with their bill files, competing interests also manifest themselves.  I discovered that one of my bills interfered with some priority policy advocated by our House Leadership.

The great part about our system is that we are able to talk through our objectives and find common ground.  I learned about our Leadership's vision for using Motion Picture Tax Credits as a stable source of incentives for attracting projects to Utah.  After expressing my desire for greater accountability and transparency, we found a solution we all could agree upon.

State of the State Address

My wife accompanied me to the State of the State address by Governor Herbert this week.  While I didn't take any pictures of the event, I did find the Governor's speech online rendered as a music video:

Committee Redemption

Our second Revenue and Taxation committee hearing was much more fruitful.  I was able to present again the bill that was held on Tuesday as well as two other bills.

Here is audio of those bills being presented:

HB104, HB162, and HB170 all passed out favorably and will be heard on the House Floor.

Coming Soon...

Look for more potent bills to be discussed next week on the House Floor.  There are a myriad of controversial topics coming up.  I still have 6 bills in drafting right now that need to be numbered.  I will be eagerly prodding stakeholders and staff to complete the writing and have the bills released for debate.  The Session is just getting started and a lot can happen quickly.  If you have any issues or concerns, don't hesitate to reach out to me.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

HB170: Repealing Obsolescent Tax Credits

In a summertime review of tax credits on the books, one in particular really stood out.  Medical Care Savings Accounts (MSAs) are a tool used to save for medical emergencies.  The state provided a tax credit for individuals who used these in order to create an incentive for people to prepare for such an occasion.

However, implementation of the Affordable Care Act has had a significant impact on the use of MSA's.  The chart below demonstrates:

As you can see, use of the tax credit has fallen precipitously.  Data from 2015 shows only about a dozen people claimed the the tax credit.  (Note:  Health Savings Accounts are still being used and are a separate thing from MSAs.)  

So, with this tax credit becoming totally obsolescent.  It's time to repeal and clean up our books. 

Here is a draft of the bill:

If you have any questions or concerns, don't hesitate to give me a call.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

HB162: Transparency and Accountability for Taxpayer Funded Film Incentives

This session I am running a bill to provide more legislative oversight and more accountability for money that the state spends in promoting film production here in Utah.  Currently, the Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED) has been granted permission from the Legislature to issue up to $6.7 million dollars in tax credits for film productions that the department deems worthy to receive them.  Certain benchmarks and yardsticks are used to quantify which productions show the most promise for spending money and driving economic growth in the state.

The problem with tax credits, however, is that they typically receive very little legislative scrutiny once they are initiated.  Our annual legislative budget process provides a great forum to debate how we should spend money the state receives in tax revenue.  Unfortunately, there has historically been little opportunity to debate money that IS NOT received because it was excluded due to tax credits.

Thus, this lack of scrutiny creates a blind spot in regular policy discussion.  So, to bring the film incentive back into the arena of regular policy discussion, my bill proposes to do away with the Motion Picture Tax Credit and instead appropriate those funds directly into an existing account that GOED also uses for the same purpose.

Another important change that the bill makes is how film productions report their economic impact.  Current law allows for the filmmakers to report the impact their production has on the Utah economy.  In other words, how much the production spent in Utah while they were here.  The law also gives them the option of reporting how much new tax revenue they generated.  My bill, instead, will make it a requirement that tax revenue reporting also be part of what filmmakers report back to GOED.

The benefits of this bill are many fold.  First, we will have a chance to review performance of the funds with GOED each year as we do with other incentive programs they oversee.  Legislative oversight and accountability are important parts of good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.  Also, our Business, Economic Development and Labor (BEDL) sub-appropriations committee is tasked with placing money where it makes the most return on investment. Understanding how much tax revenue is generated by the incentives is absolutely important in making those judgments.

I will be working with GOED and staff to determine the best way to transition the film incentives out of the tax credit arena and into existing direct grants.  As a member of the BEDL Appropriations Sub-Committee and as Vice-Chair of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, I believe we should be able to work through the details very quickly and effectively.


Here is the draft of the bill as it is currently written:

Friday, January 8, 2016

QUALITY CONTROL: The Case for Partisan Candidate-Specific Voting

I recently signed on as the Republican co-sponsor of a bill to change our ballots to allow only candidate-specific voting in partisan races.  This bill would stop the practice of 'straight ticket' voting.

HB119 is sponsored by my House Democratic colleague Patrice Arent.  FOX 13 recently interviewed her and the Republican and Democrat Party Chiefs.  Here is that video:

Straight ticket voting allows a person to vote for a political party rather than a candidate. While at first glance this seems like a reasonable thing to permit, in the end it provides for a less robust and healthy civic discourse.

FULL DISCLOSURE:  Part of my bias against straight ticket voting is that I lost my first election because of it.  In 2008 I ran against a 10-year Democrat incumbent.  We ran a tireless campaign only to lose by 200 votes.  My district at that time was gerrymandered specifically to give safe harbor to a Democrat candidate.  So, it was an uphill battle.  Yet, I was able to persuade many people of Democrat persuasion to support me.  Why?  It wasn't because I was a liberal guy, but rather I was able to speak with them on their doorstep and find common ground where it existed.  So, its no surprise that scenes like this were common in downtown Ogden in 2008.

Clearly, things were so bad that many Democrats felt their best option at that time was to vote for a Republican.  So, what happened on election day?  A significant proportion of voters voted straight ticket (in this case Democrat) not thinking that there was this lonely Republican guy on the ballot needing their specific attention.  In my follow up with voters, I heard from many of them that they had voted for me while at the same time telling me how they proudly voted straight ticket Democrat.  Discouraging to say the least.

So, this is an old story and we know how it ultimately ended.  But, besides my own personal grievance, why would eliminating straight ticket voting and moving to partisan candidate-specific voting be a good idea for Utah?  Here are some points.

Political Branding

First, political parties of all varieties are a brand name.  The brand name is supposed to mean something.  Before SB54, political parties had control over the candidate nominating process which created some quality control to determine which candidates made it on the ballot.  Wild flaming liberal candidates were weeded from the Republican ballots and the boring lifeless conservatives were weeded from the Democrat ballots.  All this was done through the caucus-convention system which provided a forum for debate and inquisition.  The new "signature route" to the primary ballot provides an end-run around that discovery process and puts people on the ballot who may or may not share the philosophy of their declared political party.  In other words, the political parties have lost a large degree of quality control over who is on the ballot.

Educated Voters

The loss of control means that much of the vetting process must be done by individual voters rather than informed participants in the sieve of the caucus-convention system.  Unfortunately, straight ticket voting detracts from this delicate differentiation process.  Instead, instituting partisan, candidate-specific voting creates an environment that encourages voters to make informed choices.  An educated electorate makes better candidate choices.

Incentive for Quality Candidates

The other benefit to eliminating straight ticket voting is that it will put pressure on political parties to recruit better candidates.  Voting for a candidate with a "D" or "R" next to their name doesn't mean much if it doesn't mean anything to the candidate themselves.  So, parties have an incentive to find and recruit candidates that share their same political values and bring those candidates forward for consideration.  

Here is a copy of the bill as it us currently written:

Our new system provides plenty of opportunity for gaming the election process.  Eliminating straight ticket voting helps voters to stop that from happening.  I look forward to debating this issue and hopefully bring better outcomes to an increasingly complicated election process.