I hope you’ll excuse a tardy review of Week #1 at the legislature. The theme of this update is “drinking from the firehose,” which is exactly how it feels as a new legislator. I knew that in the abstract going in, but nothing can fully prepare a person for the actual experience. It is both exhilarating and exhausting, and I feel truly humbled to occupy that chair and feel the weight and responsibility of representing so many people and their interests.
In this email, I hope to describe several of the most important issues the legislature is likely to address this session rather than rundown a list of what happened last week, much of which involved initial budget meetings and hearing a lot of bills vetted over the summer, the vast majority of which involve little or no controversy.
Budget Battles, Charlie Brown Edition, in which Governor Herbert dares the legislature to try and kick the football.
Governor Herbert announced plans last December to divvy up a record surplus, with much of that money earmarked for education. Unfortunately, however, the proposed budget combined overly optimistic numbers with plans that cannot be accomplished without significant changes to existing law. As a result, while we may still see a surplus, it will doubtless be less than anticipated with much of that automatically dedicated to priorities like building back up the State’s Rainy Day Fund. Utah must continue its long tradition of sound fiscal management. Unlike the federal government, Utah actually balances its budget every year, and, even in the face of a potential surplus, we’ve asked state agencies to prepare budgets that reflect a 2% decline in revenue, an exercise that forces agency heads to look for potential efficiencies and to prioritize those programs that offer the greatest bang for the taxpayers’ buck. For my part, I’ve shared with House leadership the clear consensus of many in our district that our first priority is too pay down debt, and to take a cautious approach to anything left over, favoring one-time funding of priorities like education, transportation, or a tax rebate rather than ongoing obligations that could leave us in a real bind if the economy takes a downward turn.
Medicaid Expansion, in which the Obama Administration says, “Do what we say and we’ll give you your money back, but in no event can you require people to work to receive a government benefit.”
The Affordable Care Act (“ACA” or “Obamacare”) envisioned an expanded Medicaid program providing insurance coverage to individuals and families earning up to 138% of the federal poverty line, with subsidized access to private insurance exchanges covering those between 100-400% of the federal poverty line. When the Supreme Court held that the ACA couldn’t force states to expand Medicaid, it creates a “coverage gap” for those below 100% of federal poverty line. To address this problem, the ACA offers States a deal: provide Medicaid to everyone making up to 138% of federal poverty and we’ll pay 90% of the total costs for the first three years; anything less and we pay the traditional Medicaid split, where the State pays 30% and the federal government pays 70%. Please note that these “payments” consist largely of taxes already levied on and collected from Utah citizens and businesses. In other words, we’re not getting an infusion of federal dollars so much as our own money back. If we don’t get that money back, it goes to other states to subsidize their expansion of Medicaid.
Governor Herbert’s Healthy Utah Initiative covers everyone up to 138%, but his administration’s efforts to secure a work requirement for healthy individuals have gone nowhere. While some in the House favor Healthy Utah, most do not, for a couple of reasons: (1) in order to help a few it provides unnecessary benefits to many (in doing so, it creates perverse incentives for individuals and employers); (2) it dramatically expands the number of people who rely on the government for their health care costs, and (3) it dramatically increases an expensive, bloated, and likely unsustainable program. Moreover, benefits, once extended, cannot in all likelihood be taken back. For all those reasons, a majority of House Republicans favor efforts to extend Medicaid to cover the medically frail, people who cannot work and who, today, use our health care system extensively by showing up in emergency rooms in crisis—the least effective and most expensive treatment option possible, and something we all pay for through higher insurance premiums. Ironically, over the short term this modest option costs more than Healthy Utah on account of the less generous federal subsidy. Over the long term, however, modest, cautious expansion likely exposes our State to far less financial risk and allows us to test what works … and what doesn’t.
State School Board Elections, in which almost anything appears better than the current system.
In the wake of a judicial decision last Fall that called into question the legality of our current system for selecting members of the State School Board, at least five different proposals are on the table: (1) direct, partisan elections; (2) direct, non-partisan elections, (3) the “Trustee Model,” where the Governor nominates and the Senate approves board members; (4) a hybrid model similar to our current system, and (5) a system whereby the local school boards nominate and elect members of the State School Board. Of these, two options are getting the most play at present, each with its plusses and minuses, though both promote, to my mind, significantly better accountability than the current system.
The Trustee Model – Pros: This model recognizes that the State School Board exercises executive authority within our constitutional system. In consequence, it makes sense for the chief executive—the Governor—to appoint Board members with advice and consent from the Senate and to be held accountable for their performance. We’re familiar with this model because the U.S. Constitution uses this pattern frequently for various agency heads and other offices in the Executive Branch; we also see it used frequently the State level. Cons: Accountability remains indirect in the sense that the voters have no direct control over school board members. School board policy may change dramatically with a change in administration. Legislative proposal here: http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/SJR005.html.
Partisan Elections — Pros: The idea that the State School Board is non-partisan is really a fiction as school board elections have become intensely political. Voters and delegates know and understand this system. Caucus/convention systems keep costs down and allow ordinary citizens to compete. Cons: “Ballot bloat” is a real problem, meaning that, the more candidates are on a ballot, the more many voters opt to vote only for the high profile races and skip the rest. Combining this with SB-54 (alternate path to the ballot) may increase the cost of State School Board elections dramatically, favoring wealthy and well-connected candidates. Legislative proposal here: http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/SB0104.html.
Transportation, in which our infrastructure breaks down, and we all start riding unicycles …
Two things of note here: First, there is near-universal belief on Capitol Hill that the gas tax is broken, and needs to be changed, though opinions differ widely on how best to address the problem. In broad terms, the Senate favors increasing the cents per gallon tax (currently 24.5 cents per gallon, which has been in place and remained unchanged since 1997), while the House favors moving to a percentage tax similar to the sales tax, which would allow a change in the formula that would remain revenue neutral at current prices. The first option represents a tax increase and does not address the problem of inflation; the second could vary widely, resulting in less taxes when fuel prices are low and more taxes when fuel prices are high. The likely solution may be some hybrid between the two.
Second, many residents of Farmington remain concerned about the proposed alignment of the West Davis Corridor and what it might mean for their community. In that regard, UDOT is currently considering a “shared solutions” alternative that would develop local transportation options instead of building a new freeway. It remains to be seen, however, whether this option passes UDOT’s internal review in terms of its ability to handle population growth. See this story for more details: http://www.sltrib.com/news/1816746-155/udot-freeway-shared-alternative-solution-lanes
Anti-Discrimination Laws and Religious Freedom, in which most of us struggle to view things from a different perspective.
Recent announcements by the LDS Church that laws should both prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and protect religious freedoms and freedom of conscience have opened the door to legislation that seeks to balance those competing interests. Expect to see a number of bills on this issue—on both sides—though any successful bill will likely combine the concepts into a single piece of legislation.
Air Quality, in which the Utah Division of Air Quality (UDAQ) bans wood burning … and apple pie.
A proposed rule by the UDAQ that would ban all forms of wood burning during the winter months—regardless of air quality—ran into a storm of criticism, and the Division has already announced plans to scrap that proposal.
The legislature will consider several bills on air quality, in particular Rep. Becky Edward’s HB-226, which would allow the UDAQ to require real-time monitoring devices on incinerators or other point sources who have repeatedly violated discharge limits, conditions that may exceed or differ from existing federal regulations: http://le.utah.gov/~2015/bills/static/HB0226.html.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
You can see a list of bills I am sponsoring here: http://le.utah.gov/asp/billsintro/RepResults.asp?Listbox3=HAWKETD. All of these are what we call “clean up bills” in that they make fairly minor or technical changes to existing law. They offer a great opportunity to learn the process, however, and provide needed clarifications or minor shifts in policy. If you have questions on any of those bills, please let me know.
I am also working on several issues that may or may not lead to specific legislation. Those ideas include: (1) greater transparency in terms of funding for school buildings and associated infrastructure as well as common reporting mechanisms that allow us to compare costs across school districts and between charter schools; (2) clarifying the need for charter schools to issue Request for Proposals (RFPs) when building new schools; and (3) state involvement in organic certification and whether that role is better served by private providers.
Please keep in touch and feel free to contact me with questions or comments about any of the issues described above or about any other issues—both during the session and throughout the year. I am honored to serve you.
Your voice in the Utah legislature,
Representative Tim Hawkes
Utah House of Representatives