Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rumors-gotta love 'em

Rumors are running rampant on Capitol Hill and depending on who you talk to, there's a different answer. Here is a sampling:

Increase the motor vehicle registration fee-will they or won't they?

Abolish private clubs-will they or won't they?

Reinstate the sales tax on food-will they or won't they?

Increase the tax on cigarettes-will they or won't they?

Changes to property tax-will they or won't they?

Health system reform-will they or won't they?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Berserk Pigs

Sometimes floor debate in the House is hilarious. The Representatives were debating a bill this morning called SB 173 Emotional Support Animals and Pyschiatric Therapy Animals. I have no problem with people having emotional support animals. These are a necessary part of some people's lives and I don't intend to make fun of the animals or the people who need them. The funny part was the stories told on the floor about animals gone wild.

Rep. Sandstrom told about the havoc wreaked on a plane he was piloting when a large pig went berserk at 35,000 feet. It defecated, did damage, upset passengers, and generally caused a heck of a lot of problems. The gallery was totally out of control and practically rolling in the aisles. I was surprised that Speaker Clark didn't ask for order. Perhaps the fact that he was smiling pretty big at the time constrained him. Then Rep. Seegmiller listed the animals allowed on Amtrak trains. These included pigs, dogs, and even miniature horses.

What the? Miniature horses? Just imagine a cross-country trip with one of those as your seatmate!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Senator Bramble's PTA Revenge Bill

SB-199, which seeks to provide equal access to school resources for all parent groups and prohibits access to school resources by groups that charge dues (and won't waive upon request), has a number of problems.

The bill isn't long, so take a minute to read it here.

  1. The definition of "parent group" is recursive. In other words, it says that a "Parent group" is a legally organized parent or parent/teacher group, association, or organization. You can't define something in terms of itself. What constitutes a parent group?
  2. So what is a parent group? Is a group that has parents in it a parent group? Does it have to have "parent" in the name of the group? Would booster clubs be parent groups? Can anyone create a "parent group" and demand equal access? What about "Utah County Republican Women"? Is that a parent group? It's composed of parents? What about "Parents for Legalization of Marijuana"? Is that a parent group because it has "Parents" in the name?
  3. This bill likely has unintended consequences. It seeks to provide equal access for all parent groups to the following: general meetings, school facilities, resources, and staff members, opportunities and invitations to serve on school committees, school goods and services, volunteer opportunities, leadership opportunities, voting privileges. What this means is that any parent group (whatever that is) can demand the same access to any of the resources as any other group. So if one organization has the principal on their board, then he would have to serve on the board for all parent committees. If one group has a fund-raising table, all parent groups get one. If one group gets to address parents of incoming students, all groups would get that opportunity.
  4. So what would happen if a bunch of different parent groups get organized? They all get equal access, no matter what they may or may not bring to the school. An group that has 2 members and brings little of value to the school would get the same access as a group that has 500 members and brings great value. What would happen if there were 5 parent groups, or 10, or 20?
  5. Among the equal access provisions is that if a school accepts invitations to participate in one parent group, it HAS to accept invitations to all parent groups. If a large number of parent groups decide to descend on the school, this could be extremely burdensome to the school, having to participate in all parent groups if it participates in one.
  6. This bill prohibits schools from working with any group that requires dues as a condition for participation in the group (including access to leadership positions and ability to vote in the group). He added an amendment that said groups that asked for dues would be permitted if they would waive the dues upon request of a person. Senator Bramble, during his introduction of this bill at the Senate Education Committee, equated this to the waiving of school fees. What??? Those fees are only waived upon meeting strict financial guidelines as set by the legislature. You can't just ask for them to be waived. Yet he seems to think that a private organization should be required to waive dues for any person that requests it.
The PTA's funding mechanism is primarily through member dues. That is not just at the local level, but is the funding mechanism at the state and national level. Even if Utah PTA decided to change their funding mechanism (which is not as simple as it sounds), they still have to pay dues to National PTA for each member. Utah PTA would have rely on donations to fund the dues required for people who request their dues be waived. I call upon Senator Bramble to make the first donation to PTA if his bill passes.

Senator Bramble, you and your colleagues often complain about Washington not giving local control on a variety of issues. You don't seem to extend the same courtesy to local school boards. Why not let them decide what groups serve the needs of their schools best? Or let a school decide? Schools are not required to have a PTA. If they decide another organization is best for them, fine. But let them decide. If the PTA isn't meeting a school's needs, the school won't have a PTA.

Despite what you say it seems obvious that this is an attempt to get rid of PTA. Talk about unintended consequences.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sen. Bramble and the Utah PTA

It seems Sen. Bramble is taking on the PTA moms and dads in an effort to...

Actually, I am lost as to his motive.

His bill, SB 199, wants to grant equal access to all parent and parent/teacher groups. Evidently this is a problem in Provo, so he is using his legislative prerogative to mandate a change for the entire state. Equal access doesn't seem like a bad thing, but he wants to prohibit schools from working with a parent group that requires dues for its members to vote and elect their leaders. He added an amendment in committee yesterday that would allow a school to work with a dues-paying organization that waives the dues requirement upon request. So you could belong to the organization, use its name, benefit from its resources, elect its leaders and not pay to belong.

Huh? He wants to legislate how a private organization conducts its own affairs? Is this good public policy? Because I can think of many professional organizations that collect dues and elect their leaders, and I'm pretty sure they don't want the Legislature telling them whether or not they can continue.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Budget

Today is the last round of Appropriations Subcommittee meetings. The committees have to submit their recommendations to Executive Appropriations for the 2010 budget. So after today we'll have a good idea of where the state's programs are going and what will be left. Some things may be restored if revenue projections are higher on Tuesday. Keep watching.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ethics and the Senate

The Deseret News says: "Lawmakers are struggling to settle on ethics reforms this session. Senate Republicans have said there's little hope they'll agree as a caucus on any particular bill."

There seems to be a feeling among House Representatives that something needs to be done about legislative ethics. But just as in other years, the Senate Republicans are dragging their feet. Why is this so hard? Why can't the Senate Republicans see that their constituents want this? Are they that out of touch with the citizens of Utah?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Seen at the Capitol

People will do almost anything to speak with their legislators.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Mr. Van Tassell goes to committee

Royce Van Tassell is the vice-president of the Utah Taxpayer's Association and policy voice on Capitol Hill for the UTA. (Not to be confused with the Utah Transit Authority-sometimes acronyms can be confusing.) He has extensive experience as a lobbyist on the Hill, but it's been a rough session for him so far. He tangled with the urbane, and always knowledgeable, Sen. Jon Valentine on Friday in his testimony against the increase in the cigarette tax.

Sen. Valentine won.

Monday morning, he appeared before the House Revenue and Taxation Committee. The committee was discussing 1st Substitute HB 35, Nonrefundable Higher Education Tuition Credit by Rep. Dougall. He testifed that targeting the credit to certain majors, such as engineering and technology, would be a better use of the money and help drive our flagging economy. The example he used was that he had majored in political science and after all, who needs more poli sci majors? He also referenced his sister's degree in recreation management, along with English and other liberal arts degrees. The tone inferred that these were flippant and irrelevant college majors.

Now the fun began.

Rep. Seelig and Sandstrom both informed him that they had been political science majors and then gone on to graduate work. They sounded offended. Um, really offended.

Rep. Spackman-Moss then defended English majors. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that she taught high school English for years.

At this point, he scanned the committee and realized that he had managed to insult most of the members of the committee and attempted to extricate himself, but unfortunately, the damage had been done. His pertinent policy points were repeatedly knocked down by the committee and ignored.

In the end, he bowed out. Rather red in the face.

Some days, it's really tough to be a lobbyist.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Saga of the Cigarette Tax

SB 114 by Sen. Christensen is the Senate bill that will raise the tax on cigarettes. It was unexpectedly routed to the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee, rather than Senate Health and Human Services, and its supporters feared that it would die in committee. But during Friday's committee meeting, the bill was passed out by Sen. John Valentine. He will be amending the bill on the Senate floor to lower the rate from $3 to $1.30/pack. Rep. Ray has a competing bill in the House and now observers will be watching to see if the upcoming Senate version has a better chance of passing the House. With the support of the Governor, it seems likely that some version of the tax increase will get through this session.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Senator plugged his ears

Evidently freshman Sen. Dan Liljenquist was not listening to Gov. Huntsman’s State of the State address on Tuesday evening when he said, “Every person in this chamber is motivated by our state’s success. Our discussion should be conducted with civility, respect and a recognition of the challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves.”

Today’s scenario:
  • 15% reduction for the 2010 Dept. of Human Services budget
  • 4 hour meeting
  • no dinner
  • freezing committee room
Granted, these conditions could make anyone testy and, possibly, downright mean. However, elected officials have a responsibility to conduct themselves with civility and respect.

Especially two days after the Governor from your own party reminds you to play nice.

And especially if you’re a freshman Senator who is traditionally expected to be seen and not heard during the first year of your term.

Sen. Liljenquist repeatedly pounded DHS director, Lisa-Michele Church, today about budget cuts, until finally the gentlemanly Sen. Allen Christensen said he was embarrassed and disgusted at the accusatory tone from the committee and the bashing of "the best department head we have in this state". He moved to adjourn in order to cut short the bloodshed, only to have the motion defeated. He walked out of the committee. Did this pointed behavior from a senior Senator discourage Senator Dan? No way. He continued to hammer Ms. Church until House Minority Leader David Litvack pointedly said after an exchange with the Senator, “The most important lesson my father ever taught me was this: It's not what you say, it's how you say it."

Sen. Liljenquist finally realized that he was out of order and apologized to Ms. Church but she had stepped out of the committee room to compose herself. He promised to apologize to her personally.

Thanks for the apology, Senator, but it was too little, too late.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I Spy: former legislators lobbying

There is an ethics reform package coming in the Utah Legislature that includes a ban on former lobbyists for one year after they leave office. Fortunately for 2008 alumni, it won't affect them. This is good news for Mark Walker, new lobbyist for IHC, and Greg Curtis, new lobbyist for Big Tobacco. They have been seen roaming the halls of the Capitol during the first two days of the session, discussing issues with current legislators.

Ethics reform-it can't come too soon!