Saturday, January 28, 2017

2017 General Session Update: Week 1


The first week of the Session was extremely eventful.  We started out with a swearing-in of all the existing legislators and special swearing in of the freshman class of new Reps.

They all look a little nervous...and rightfully so.  I remember the feeling of swimming under water my first session.  


After the election in November, House Members received their committee assignments.  For the past two years I served as the Vice-Chair of the Revenue and Taxation Committee.  I was actually getting quite comfortable there and attempting to become a more finely honed tax policy specialist.  Well, that plan changed this year when Speaker Hughes asked me to serve as the Chairman of Government Operations.  I accepted the appointment and will be managing the committee agenda which hears a lot of election law bills.  Look for a busy agenda as we mop up the mess from process problems discovered during this last year's election cycle.  

The best part of the new job, of course, is the view from the office.


I posted about the giant protest on Monday and was quickly brutalized.  You can read more about that experience and my thoughts here:


Here is the status of the bills I am working on currently:

HB23 - Income Tax Credit Modifications (Solar Tax Credit Phase Out) - We finally had a gathering of stakeholders on Thursday morning to hammer out a final compromise on the bill.  In the meeting, the industry immediately asked to not make any real changes for another year.  That was a pretty funny thing to suggest given the history of this issue.  We rejected that idea and settled on a different compromise that the industry can live with and the legislature can feel good about.  That compromise will be presented to committee next week as a substitute bill.

HB24 - Student Prosperity Savings Plan - We thought the bill would be sent to the House Floor since it passed interim committee unanimously.  However, the bill showed up with a $3 Million price tag.  That turned out to be a tad bit optimistic since that would correlate with $60 Million in private donations to disadvantaged and intergenerational poverty youth.  Fortunately, we found a model that more accurately reflects the taxpayer burden of the bill and the cost will be about $5,000 annually.  

HB64 - Property Tax Relief Amendments - This bill went straight to the House Floor and passed unanimously this week.  You can watch the brief bill presentation HERE

HB73 - Child Placement Amendments - This bill came out of rules this week and was assigned to be heard at the Judiciary Standing Committee. It will likely be heard this coming week. 


We heard the Governor offer his priorities this year.  His speech was great.  Unfortunately, the view was not.  


I do have a couple other bill files being worked on but they are not numbered yet.  

National Popular Vote

I have been speaking with colleagues about the issue of the National Popular Vote.  This issue will be a study item for us to explore in the future.  Look for more from me on this fascinating topic. You can learn more in the meantime HERE

Inmate Housing Reform

I have a bill file that is being written that will redesign Utah's halfway hosue system to more evenly distribute halfway house inmates across the state.  

Renewable Energy Innovation Grants

I am working with the Governor's Office of Energy Development to create a $1 Million grant program for development and deployment of new renewable energy technologies. 


I was grateful to have the President of the Ogden Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Kent Collins, offer the opening prayer for the House on Friday.  I invited my two nephews, Bruce and Preston Thomas, to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Look for more to come next week!

DRAMA TRAUMA: My Week In Dante's 5th Circle of Hell

The first day of the 2017 Legislative Session saw one of the largest protests to ever materialize in the Capitol Building.  Estimates are that 6,000 people filled the marble halls of the Rotunda.

Our business in the Chamber concluded early into the protest so I decided to walk around to get a feel for the event.  I took many photos and decided to write a playful and lighthearted report about what I saw.  On Tuesday morning around 8:30am I posted that report on this blog.  The gist of my post was two fold.  First, I felt that the protest message hurt itself by invoking vulgarity (which I am on the record denouncing when it came from our President).  Second, the protest had so many different messages that trying to focus a conversation on the issues proved unwieldy.  

Peaceful protest is an American tradition.  Its purpose is to air grievances and to promote discussion.  Often times counter-protests are part of that process.  Regardless, gathering together in peaceful assembly has always been to make a point.  So, as a lawmaker attempting to receive that point, and also help initiate a discussion, I offered my own candid perspective on what I saw.  No malice nor ill-will was intended.  You can read the original blog post (which my wife proofread and approved before it was published) for yourself below:

The response I received was swift, organized, and acidic.  By 4pm on Tuesday, my cell phone (which I use for work, personal, and legislative purposes) was rendered unusable by the volume of calls coming in.  The messages left on my voicemail were caustic.  I checked the traffic on the blog site and it became apparent the post was going viral.  The reaction was certainly not what I expected and the harsh feelings were definitely not what I was trying to provoke.  In deference to the ugly feelings being created, and in the expediency of regaining use of my cell phone, I deleted the post.  

Whether that deletion was a wise decision or not is up for debate.  In hind sight, I imagine that the post could have received national attention.  In fact, I started getting angry calls from other states on Wednesday.  But, the deletion also created an air of 'secrecy' which just made it that much more interesting to people.  So, I received the double monikers of 'despicable' and 'coward'.  The deletion even earned me the title of Friday's Boner of the Day on X96's Radio from Hell Show.  I beat out a boner candidate who stole medical equipment from a girl with cerebral palsy, and a candidate who, as a coach, lied to kids about having cancer when instead he was going to jail for embezzlement.  So, it appears that a blog post deletion amounts to serious moral turpitude.      

From the larger perspective, this whole episode highlights the deep and poignant divisions that exist in our society.  What would be perceived as playful banter being written by a Democrat, equals hostile aggression from a Republican. Our self-segregating echo chambers are naturally hostile to new or different worldviews. Our desire to be heard is limited by our desire to be validated. It takes a lot of practice and patience to engage in civil discourse when the differences and the effort required to overcome them is large. But, for the sake of our Republic, the effort is worth it.

 I have a conservative world view.  At Monday's event, I could have stayed comfortably within the secure hallways and corridors of the Capitol and found a quiet place to ignore the protest.  But, instead I spent about an hour wandering around and observing.  The people were friendly and I didn't feel threatened at all.  People were smiling.  I was the only guy in a suit which made me stick out like a sore thumb.  That visual irony wasn't lost on me which is why I joked about being "undercover" and took a couple selfies.  Nevertheless, I made an effort to discover what was being said, even if there wasn't an instantaneous acceptance of the message.   

When discussing this communication problem with my Democratic colleagues (who also thought the original blog post was fairly benign) they chuckled a little at the negative feedback I was getting because it was the response they expected.  A female Democratic colleague told me: "Just walk away.  You can't touch this.  This is toxic for you as Republicans." She appears to be right.

Yet, the irony here is that Republicans control government everywhere you look in Utah.  If you want your message to lead to action, it has to be heard.  To be heard the message has to be conveyed, received, then understood.  From what I can see among my colleagues, the message of Monday's event isn't being received well nor is it understood at all.  Sadly, the vitriolic response my colleagues have watched me receive has dampened any of the little enthusiasm they had to engage.  The risk-reward ratio just doesn't payoff for them.  Nobody wants to be needlessly demonized for disagreeing. 

Civility in disagreement is paramount in importance. A friend in House Minority Leadership and I chatted about the need for this no less than three times this week.  Both of us are of the opinion that everyone needs to pull themselves out of their comfort zones to have a healthy dialogue.  I also spoke with Marina Lowe of the ACLU and offered to help present civic engagement classes to inform citizen activists on the best ways to interface with lawmakers.                

I am a lighthearted guy. So, it is disheartening to see that my attempted humor was misinterpreted as outright contempt.  Clearly, the rift in worldviews is wide.   I look forward to the day that rift can heal and we can all laugh together again.  After all, laughter is the best medicine.    

Sunday, January 15, 2017

2017 Pre-Session Primer

So the 2017 General Session gets under way in a week's time.  What does this year's policy scrum have in store?  There is a lot to be sure.  Here is brief overview of what to expect.

'Our Schools Now' Takes The Legislature Hostage

You may have heard of the effort by Education First, Our Schools Now, and a group of wealthy businessmen to hike our income taxes by $750 Million through a ballot initiative.  While this constitutes a nearly 20% increase in taxpayer's out of pocket expenses, the group is hoping you won't mind, sign their petition, and vote for it anyway.  

The threat of a citizen ballot initiative is a popular way for special interest groups to intimidate the Legislature.  You may recall Count My Vote and their crusade to abolish the party Caucus/Convention system.  The Legislature saw that the threat was real and drafted SB54 to prompt a cease fire.  The fight stopped but the consequences of SB54 live on.  

With Education First's heist, my bet is we are in a recession by 2018 when their initiative would appear on the ballot and voters reject the measure. 

Besides, there are many ways for the Legislature to trim up tax credits and other tax policies to help create funds for education that have been overlooked.  Legislation I recently passed helps the Legislature identify those funds.  

Meanwhile, expect the Legislature to be insulted by these provocative gesticulations.  The thought of a few wealthy people willing to advocate for an increase of taxes on the common man just doesn't sit well with me.  And in an even more ironic twist, the key provocateurs are former Legislators themselves.  Retirement is boring, I guess.

Medical Marijuana

Look for this issue to come up again but it will likely come from a research angle.  The change in the Administration in D.C. will require a lot of clarity in federal policy before you see major medical marijuana initiatives move forward.  The uncertainty will cloud this issue this year, I believe.

Business Licensing Simplification

Utah has a moderately heavy regulatory apparatus when it comes to licensing businesses.  Efforts are underway to create a principled and well reasoned policy for requiring businesses to be licensed.  This effort should reduce burdens to businesses and open up competition in many industries. 

Election Reform

The dejected voters who suffered in big lines on election day this last cycle will have their grievances addressed in several bills.  Most of those bills will come to our Government Operations Committee of which I am the Chair.  

Mr. Peterson's Bills

HB23 - Income Tax Credit Modifications - This bill will phase out rooftop solar tax credits.  The bill will move $24M+ to the education budget.  Learn more HERE, HERE, and HERE.

HB24 - Student Prosperity Savings Program - Tax Amendments - This bill leverages private funds to help disadvantaged and poor students pay for college education expenses. 

HB64 - Property Tax Relief Amendments - This bill clarifies that widows and widowers may receive existing property tax relief regardless of their age.

HB73 - Child Placement Amendments - This bill passed the House and died on the Senate board last Session due to time constraints last Session.  It requires outstanding arrest warrant checks to be conducted on parents of children in state custody before the state moves for reunification. 

I have a couple more bills that are being drafted right now.  Look for more details on those as they are published...

In a final note, I am looking forward to my new assignment as Chair of the Government Operations Standing Committee.  I will be flanked by my wingman Rep. Norman Thurston who will serve as Vice-Chair.  We should have a very interesting agenda this year.  Look for more reports to come! 


RACE RELATIONS: Colorblindness and the Content of Character

For the past 5 years, I have served as a member of the Multi-Cultural Commission.  The Commission has served as a sounding board for ethnic communities throughout the state and a place where issues and concerns can be discussed as they relate to separate and specific groups.

While the mission and focus of the Commission seemed to waiver during my early tenure there, it has since coalesced around a message of outreach and advocacy.  The best example of this is the yearly Youth Leadership Summit that brings thousands of kids from ethnic minority homes together to promote education and personal success.  Indeed, the event is inspiring and successful in its own right.

But with all this being said, there is an undertone that I have noticed in much of our dialogue about race and ethnicity that I find disconcerting and perhaps counter productive to our ultimate goals of harmony.  Early upon my arrival at the Commission, we discussed the different Chambers of Commerce that were set up for various ethnic minorities.  There was the Hispanic Chamber, the African-American Chamber, the Asian Chamber, and so forth.  I spoke to a Commission member after the meeting and related to him my excitement that one day none of these Chambers would be necessary because we would all be colorblind and our differences wouldn't matter. To my shock, this member rejected my comment and declared that it was absolutely important to have individual and distinct groups.  He believed that each group should be celebrated in its difference from the others.  I was so surprised that I didn't know what to say.

Here is the paradox as I see it:  Martin Luther King Jr. taught that men should be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.  Yet, in today's diversity sensitive society, we are expected to distinguish people by their racial difference from our own.  I struggle to reconcile these two thoughts.  One one hand we have colorblindness and on the other we have high-contrast.

In my view, diversity simply for diversity's sake is divisive.   The term 'diverse' should be an adjective used to describe the physical qualities of something, such as a population.   But in many cases it is assigned a moral value.  Such as diversity is good, homogeneity is bad.  Yet, if we go back to Dr, King's words, if we are truly living by them, neither diversity nor homogeneity matter.  They become irrelevant.

So, this colorblind view has been a perspective I have held for a long time.  I have Hispanic neighbors who don't speak any English and are from rural Mexico.  I have African-American and Asian colleagues I work with in my profession as a real estate broker.  To me, everyone is an equal in their humanity and each brings something of value to the table in my personal relationship with them.  Yet, when I share this perspective with my liberal leaning friends, they say "Well, that's great you are doing that, but the rest of the world isn't that way."  Well, I say Why Not?

Racial acceptance is a non-partisan issue.  Sadly, the ongoing politicization of this topic moves people farther apart rather than closer together.  My wish for this MLK Day is that we take an introspective look at how we view those around us who are different from us.  If we realize they have a family, work, pay taxes, and want the same opportunities in life we do, perhaps we can get past the divisions that keep us from relating with each other.  Rather than persistently pointing out our distinct differences to everyone else, let us engage our fellow men in a spirit of our common humanity.          

Monday, January 9, 2017

UTAH JOURNOS: Herbert Must Go Hog Wild With Power

As the wind-up to the 2017 General Session begins in earnest, many commentators are pitching their vision for how Governor Herbert should wield his Executive Scepter.  Both veteran reporter Bob Bernick and newly knighted Trib columnist Robert Gerhke (vote Gerhke!) have chimed in with an earful of advise:


The desire presented by both of these venerable journalists is that our good Governor should spend his political capitol like a drunken sailor.  While a lot of Democrats I know would pay money to see our Governor drunk or dressed up as a sailor, neither is likely any time...ever.  

But, for him to spend his political capitol in such a way is even less likely.  I have had my differences in how I thought the Governor should handle certain issues.  Yet, I have come to terms with who he is and how he governs.  He is a measured man who is not quick to harsh judgement.  This in many activist circles translates into 'boring'.  But, voters (outside Salt Lake City) don't elect activists.  They elect people who will govern, and sometimes that means piloting a steady course.  After all, gentle winds move mighty ships.  

However, I have to admit it's a lot of fun being an arm-chair general and telling others how they should do their job.  In fact, I think Bernick and Gerhke need to wield their mighty pens to focus on avant-garde poetry and crossword puzzles.  I am sure its a wining formula for could it not be?

While we are waiting for my journalistic advice to be taken, let's watch for a deliberative and thoughtful Governor to speak to the issues facing us and focus Utah on remaining one of the best managed State's in the Union (by signing all of my bills this year.)