Sunday, October 13, 2019

Swallowing a bitter pill

During the September 16, 2019 Special Session of the Utah Legislature, we lawmakers were asked to vote for a bill approving the John Swallow settlement, as well as approve a funding request of $1.5 million in reimbursement of legal fees to our mendacious former Attorney General. I deeply disliked both bills and very much wanted to vote no. But as is so often the case, the issue was complicated, and impossible to explain in a 10-second sound bite.

Many years ago, the state legislature passed a law that allows for individuals embroiled in legal action with the state to recoup costs for attorneys' fees as long as certain criteria were met. In passing it, the legislature could never have envisioned the specter of someone like John Swallow or his atrocious behavior, but that legal history created a clear statutory guideline that was fully exploited by our state's disgraced AG. Because the case against Swallow did not lead to a guilty verdict, Swallow does, by the very clear definition of the law, have a right to legal financial redress for the costs of his attorneys' fees. We can hate it (we do), we can say it isn't right or fair (it's not), and we can refuse to pay them (we didn't). The fact is, our own courts ruled that he has the right to reimbursement, and they did it citing our own state law.

The settlement requires that Swallow may not seek to reopen any action against the state, which is good news. It cost us a lot of money, but it was money that, had we refused to settle and continued in legal battle, our state would have ultimately paid anyway. In fact, the risk of a payout even bigger than $1.5 million was very real, and Utah would have no grounds to compel John Swallow from suing the state for other damages related to the case.

I never wanted to vote to hand John Swallow any victory, but it was the right thing to do. Our legislative attorneys stressed the importance of approving this settlement - Utah has no legal ground to refuse payment of his fees. If we had fought the issue on principal, even with right on our side, we still would have lost.

It is a travesty that following this settlement, John Swallow continues to crow about his "exoneration" and "innocence." It is, of course, a fallacy. John Swallow is as dishonest and deceitful as they come. At the end of the day, our system failed to convict him. If I could have made one amendment to the settlement, it would have been to include a condition that he would never be able make statements about his own innocence in the case against him... it would have been lovely to include such a gag rule.

I could have voted no on this bill as a protest against John Swallow, and a no-vote would not have changed the outcome. But I believed that approving this settlement, however distasteful, was the right thing to do.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

We are in the third quarter and so far it’s a shutout by Utah voters who had it right on the 2018 ballot. Ironically, the majority of Utah legislators voted – not once, but twice – to undo ballot initiatives that were passed by a majority, on the argument that Utah voters were “sold a bill of goods.” And now, with much egg on the face, we know that those who argued so forcefully to make significant changes to the ballot propositions got it woefully wrong.

Medical Cannabis: HB3001, the so-called ‘compromise’ bill that undid Prop 2 (passed in December of 2018) has now – correctly – been shown to create a drug cartel. That’s right folks – Utah is at risk of being a cartel drug dealer. Had Prop 2 been left intact, we would currently be working hard to keep up with the market which is be better suited to ensuring that patients have necessary, life-changing – sometimes life-saving – medication. Instead, it has become obvious that our current law is unworkable and needs to be changed. Again. But what we really should do is simply revert back to pre-HB3001 and let the voter-approved ballot initiative go into effect. And worse, Utah patients are still waiting for relief of medical conditions that are shown to be highly responsive to treatment by medical cannabis.

And of course, the issue that has been on our minds for so many years: Medicaid Expansion. Again, a majority of voters in Utah approved a self-imposed tax in order to provide our poorest, most vulnerable individuals and families access to quality healthcare. And again, a majority of my legislative colleagues told Utahns that they knew better than you, so they made sweeping and fundamental changes to the duly passed law. And to the surprise of exactly zero healthcare advocates, the Trump administration preemptively announced that it would not approve the waiver (not yet even submitted!) to pay the enhanced Medicaid match for fewer Utahns. Despite the fervent insistent by the bill sponsor that the waiver would be approved – that CMS indicated a favorable reception – we now know for certain what we always knew… that the Trump administration is not an honest broker, not even with its own allies. Administration officials led our legislators, desperate to hear what they wanted to hear, down a path of deceit, and the result is that the federal government kept Utah tax payer dollars from Utah’s most vulnerable for an additional year or more. My theory… they never intended to approve the waiver, they just wanted our state to go barking up another tree for an extra 18 months while they strung us along, all along avoiding sending our tax dollars back to Utah.

There has been a lot of coverage about the problems with the bills that were passed by the Utah legislature to supplant the 2018 ballot initiatives. The latest news includes the Utah Supreme Court's unanimous ruling that the Governor did not act outside of his authority to call a special session in December of 2018 in order to allow the legislature to make changes to the medical cannabis proposition. The legislative changes to Prop 2 will stand. However, even more changes are still required, because HB3001 got it wrong.

It is true that the ballot initiative process in our state is not perfect, and there are very real - and very legitimate - circumstances where initiatives, once passed, need legislative action. But necessary technical fixes should not be used as excuses to make significant, fundamental changes to voter-approved propositions. In the case of Prop 2 and 3, the legislative changes were sweeping and did little to preserve the intent or spirit of either law. The reality is, many of our legislators do not trust the intelligence, competence or judgment of the very voters who elected them to office. That must change - we must elect legislators who are responsive and accountable to voters. 

We are closely monitoring the destiny of Prop 4 to create an independent redistricting commission. Many legislators feel emboldened to gut our last ballot initiative because they believe that there will be zero accountability for their behavior. Please prove them wrong by supporting more responsive candidates on the ballot in 2020! We deserve better than unresponsive, unapologetically disdainful legislators who buck the will of voters. We must support candidates who want to serve the people, not special interests and their own financial well-being.

Please consider donating today! Your help is desperately needed! Donations will be used to support candidates in 2020 who wish to represent real people, as well as to raise funds for Better Boundaries to protect Prop 4.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Taxes, Ports, Disenfranchised Republicans, and Torturing Children

There is no such thing as a boring moment at the Utah capitol. The session is short - fast and furious - but there are pivotal moments that stand out more than others.

HB441: The Tax Equalization and Reduction Act includes provisions to decrease the Utah corporate tax rate, decrease the personal income tax rate, decrease sales tax on some goods, and increase taxes on most services. The paradigm shifting aspects of HB441 are signficant.

Some of my concerns about this bill:
  1. Cutting the income tax rate means cutting the amount of money that our state has to fund public education.
  2. The fact that a vast number of service-based jobs are held by our working class which means their services are more expensive. The law of economics dictates that when price goes up, demand goes down.
  3. The additional burden, especially on small businesses, in assessing consumers the correct amount for services could be crippling.
  4. The bill has blatant preferences for some industries over others, demonstrating that powerful special interests have undue sway in determining which service industries would be exempt from a sales tax.

I received emails and phone calls from hundreds of constituents about HB441, and the vast majority were in opposition. Proponents of this policy, however, are correct in assertions that our state's tax structure is in need of reform. As a total percentage of economic output, our spending habits in purchasing goods has changed significantly in the decades since our current system was adopted. I recognize that changes should be made to accommodate for that. I vehemently disagree, though, that corporations should receive an even larger tax reduction than they already receive, and cutting the income tax rate when our state is already drastically underfunding education is folly.

My academic heart finds this bill particularly concerning because there are too many inputs to come to a reasonable conclusion about the true effects of the policy on our economy. Legislative leaders insist that the gradual ramp-up of a sales tax on services would allow the state to determine and measure the true economic effects of implementation. This bill creates too many factors that would change consumer behavior for us to ever know what the effects of each piece of the policy are. Changes in income tax, we know, change consumer behavior, so conclusions about the effects of a concurrent change in sales tax structure cannot be measured with any accuracy. Why is that significant? Because if it causes economic stress and decline, there is no sure way to determine if the stress is caused by one or more of those policy changes or how to fix it when things go awry. We have to be able to control for the effects of all inputs, and this complex policy leaves no ability to accomplish that.

Offering some points of discussion about the tax reform conversation in Utah:

Our fiscal structure may be headed toward a breaking point. I'm not trying to be alarmist, but I believe that there is merit to the argument that our current system is not sustainable for the long term, and I think that some kind of tax reform is needed. Regarding the decrease in the income tax, which has the direct effect of decreasing funding for education, House leadership and proponents of the tax bill have argued that under the proposed plan, that funding for public education would stabilize or even increase under the new plan because funding for higher education could be fully provided out of the General Fund due to increased tax revenue under a reformed system. It's a laudable goal - one of the worst decisions - I believe - made by previous legislatures, was allowing the public education fund to be used for higher education. What is wholly uncertain, though, is if the newly proposed tax structure would accomplish that goal. Considering the gravity of the consequences, this is not a law that we can simply pass and then hope it all works out. Tax reform must be careful, measured and implemented over several years. Too often we have seen sweeping tax reform measures implemented and chaos ensue.

Punch line: the discord around the proposed tax reform was insurmountable, so Republican leadership held a press conference announcing that the effort would be shelved for this legislative session, with a likely special session on the horizon. The conversation is far from over. I am hoping that the process going forward will be more inclusive and transparent.

Another hot button issue arose in the past week: a follow-up bill to last year's Inland Port legislation. HB433 adds more power and potential for an added 15 years (to the current 25) that the Port Authority may authorize itself to keep tax revenues from the activity at the Port, denying Salt Lake City proper authority over commerce that occurs entirely within its city boundaries. The bill passed out of the House with a vote of 61-11 (three people were absent for the vote).

A highly most surreal moment of the week was a Republican legislator claiming disenfranchisement in Utah. HB93 sought to allow portions of counties to split off into their own new county, but allowed for that activity to proceed only with the vote of the people within the newly proposed county, effectively silencing the voice of every person in the county left behind with no vote. Arguments made by the Representative running the bill is that she feels voiceless in Salt Lake County - not represented by the county's governing council. It would be prudent to note, of course, that Salt Lake County is represented by a majority 5-4 Republican council. As a Democrat in gerrymandered Utah, I might have a little insight to offer the sponsor about being disenfranchised and politically marginalized in our state.

Finally, I'm very disappointed in some of my legislative colleagues' efforts to undermine and sabotage efforts by Rep. Craig Hall and advocates to outlaw the torturous and horrendous practice of conversion therapy on children in our state. This practice is roundly disavowed by psychologists and therapists nation-wide. While time is of the essence, this effort is only the first of as many as it will take until this policy is passed and conversion therapy is illegal in our state. HB399 is dead for this session but this effort will continue.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The callous gutting of Medicaid Expansion

On November 6, Utah voters took to the polls and told lawmakers that expanding healthcare coverage to thousands of vulnerable Utahns is a priority for our state. Medicaid Expansion passed, but some Utah legislators aren't happy with the outcome, so efforts are underway to kill it. There is a bill reportedly sponsored by Senator Allen Christensen and Representative Jim Dunnigan that will create changes to the law that will render it impossible to implement and will not allow our state to offer the coverage that we voted on.

Here are the details as I understand them: The proposed law will 1) Impose a work requirement; 2) Create a spending and/or enrollment cap; 3) Limit enrollment to individuals at 100 percent of the federal poverty or lower. All three of these positions are not in alignment with the current law passed by the Affordable Care Act and require the state of Utah to apply for a waiver in order to secure the federal match for an expansion population. But there is a huge problem with the waiver that Sen. Christensen and Rep. Dunnigan are proposing.... Utah already submitted an identical waiver and it was not approved.

But here is what is most frustrating: the bill sponsors claim that the tax increase that voters approved in order to fund expansion will not cover the costs five years down the road. The assumptions used for that conclusion are questionable. More importantly, the "bogeyman" of a funding strain is nonsense. The estimated budgeting shortfall, if it even happens, is, at most, $60 million. Now... that's not nothing. I recognize that $60 million is a lot of money. But maintaining some perspective is critical. $60 million is one percent of our states $6 billion Social Services Appropriations budget, and only 0.33 percent - one third of one percent - of our state's total budget. In my estimation, providing coverage for 150,000 vulnerable Utahns is more than worth a third of a percent of our state budget. In fact, I know that voters agree that it is worth it. We voted for it.

There is no sound reason to gut a citizen-passed law under the guise of budgetary strain, particularly when the exact same people are planning to offer high-income tax payers a $200 million cut over the next budgeting cycle. As they say, you can't make this stuff up. State legislators, I believe, are emboldened by the seeming lack of political fallout after decimating the Medical Cannabis law, also passed via citizens' initiative. But voters across the state must insist that their representatives preserve the law passed via Prop 3. We won't have another opportunity to ensure that all Utahns have the ability to gain the healthcare they need in order to be healthy and productive, and to pursue lives that are meaningful and fulfilling.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Climbing the learning curve

Here we are, only a few short weeks from the start of the 2019 General Session. My mind spins at the scope of the information that I have obtained and, more significantly, have yet to absorb. And so, I am so very grateful for all of the advocates and lobbyists (yes, lobbyists) out there who are willing to provide information and perspective on their respective issues and areas of expertise. Before we move on, let's revisit that "lobbyist" term. Yes, there are bad actors. There are unscrupulous, personal-gain-driven, untrustworthy lobbyists in our state. There are also truly good people trying to do truly good work in Utah. State law requires anyone whose paid job is to advocate for policy issues at the Utah Capitol to obtain and maintain licensure as a lobbyist. It is what I used to do for a living. As a registered lobbyist (my license, not my job title), my job was to provide education and insight on healthcare and public health policies on which I had gained a certain level of expertise. All legislators depend on knowing trustworthy, knowledgable people to help inform on critical issues. While (the current) we (as legislators) try our best know as much as possible about as much as possible, it simply isn't possible to know it all. So (the former) we (lobbyists and advocates) work hard to provide timely information on policy issues that have the potential to impact millions of lives in our state.

Rest assured, I do not always take the information that is presented to me at face value, but I do value knowing who the advocates and lobbyists are, what issues they work on, what resources they may be able to provide so that I have ready access to all kinds of information, and what their strategies may be. Even if I don't agree with someone on an issue, having all of the information on both sides of an argument is essential to making wise, informed decisions. The decisions made at our state capitol have significant gravity, and we would be doing the people of our great state a huge disservice if we failed to maximize our own understanding and education. For that I need access to knowledge and experience, and I need it quickly and efficiently.

I'm grateful for all of the people with whom I've met over the past couple of months and to those that I will have the opportunity to interact with in the future. If you've got some info you think I need, be sure to let me know. I will be better at my job if you help me build the breadth and depth of my own knowledge, and for that, in advance, I thank you.

Be sure to check back in a day or two for a post on what I've got coming up this session. I'll do a run down of the bill files that I've opened and, more importantly, some thoughts on the legislative priorities of my colleagues, both nefarious and beneficial.

Finally, here are is a link with contact info. Don't forget, if you're a constituent and you wish to email, please put the word "Constituent" in the subject line (those are the emails that I will prioritize). Phone calls are, of course, welcome, but I'm likely to respond more quickly if you send me a text message: 385-321-7827.

Utah House of Representatives Roster
Utah Legislative Website