Opinionated @ CFE

Mike Lee, Please Read Sun Tzu


Sun Tzu probably had no idea that his treatise “The Art of War” would still be often cited and respected over 2500 years after his death. It’s a masterpiece of strategic thinking that applies to any conflict be it military, political, or even athletic. The United States armed forces have even gone so far as to require that the book be in each unit’s library. One of the most prescient quotes from the works is “victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Mike Lee seems to have completely skipped this part when agitating for a government shutdown.

I get why he’s doing it. Federal programs, once enacted, are very difficult to undo no matter how unpopular they get. If you don’t believe it, remember that a “temporary” phone tax enacted for the Spanish-American War was repealed sometime during the Bush Administration. For them, this is the last stand before a program they legitimately believe to be horrible rolls forward. The House is following because elections matter. It’s no coincidence that in the two federal elections after the ACA passed, the opposition party took control of the House. They rode in on a promise to undo the ACA, and they’re determined to fulfill it. If they don’t fight hard enough for the base, they’ll get replaced.

The problem is that while a shutdown could have potentially been a Battle of Rorke’s Drift, it’s starting to look a lot more like The Alamo. Lee has to be smart enough to know that a shutdown was coming and when it would happen. Given those circumstances, you’d think he would have laid the groundwork for explaining the issues with the federal budgeting process, the unworkability of creating new entitlements beyond the reach of Congress (which now comprises a full 2/3 of federal spending), and why playing a game of chicken to see who blinks first would be the best way to force the hand of a dug-in Senate and President. Instead, absolutely no narrative or purpose to the shutdown was created and the first to market ideas are now the defining narrative. Lee can’t even properly capitalize on the ham-fisted way in which national parks are being closed down, a prime piece of low-hanging fruit.

The failure to figure out how to win before picking the fight never ends well. It has already distracted media attention away from the train wreck that is the ACA launch and numerous stories about huge premium increases, both things that would build popular support for 2014 and beyond to eliminate the ACA. About the only silver lining is that the two parties have pretty clearly defined who owns the ACA and its attendant problems. I wonder if Mike Lee will find a way to screw that up too.

The Count My Vote Proposal Hurts Ballot Access


Count My Vote wants us to believe that their proposal will improve the elections process. I’ve already called into question their motives and proposed a solution of my own. Now that details of their solution are leaking out, it looks worse than ever. Ironically (or, more likely, by design), it would make it even harder to get onto the ballot, restricting access instead of easing it. What the what?

Let’s review the current system of ballot access we have in place. Right now, any registered member of a political party can file to run for office. They have to go through their party’s nomination process to secure a place on the ballot. Independent candidates have to secure signatures from 300 or 5% (whichever is less) of the total registered voters in their district. For State House candidates, that works out to around 1.5% of total registered voters in their districts. For Senate, it’s around 0.6%. Candidates for governor need at least 1,000 signatures from registered voters which also works out to around 0.6% of registered voters.

So how does Count My Vote propose to address this? Instead of making it easier for independents to file, they raise the threshold considerably for everyone else. Their proposal is that anyone who wants their party nomination would have to gather signatures from 2% of the voters in their district, but only from their registered party. Candidates for governor would need to lock down at least 10,000 signatures for the Republican nomination or 6,000 signatures for the Democratic nomination. This is an order of magnitude beyond the current requirement for independent candidates. Senate and House races are just as nasty with thresholds at or above independent candidates not to secure a place on the general election ballot, but to get the chance to run in the primary. These onerous requirements will ultimately discourage many candidates from trying to run or favor candidates who can afford to spend a lot of time and/or money just to get their foot in the door.

This is the problem that Count My Vote doesn’t want to talk about. All of their proposed solutions ultimately reduce the number of candidates in elections and require more money than ever to run for office. Those charges of elitism don’t seem all that far-fetched now, do they?

Want Reform? There’s Better Ways Than the Elitist Count My Vote


Ballot BoxAs I’ve pointed out previously, Count My Vote is a bunch of elitists trying to protect their turf. Their intentional misdirection is intended to make you think that their efforts to consolidate nominating power within the Republican Party is good for you. The reality is that it limits the candidates to those of their choosing. If you really want more choices on your ballot, there’s better ways to go about it.

The primary complaint about the caucus and convention system is that some good candidates never get the chance to go before the voting public as a whole. I think that’s a fair criticism. It’s also why I oppose the attempts to marginalize candidates that don’t have deep pockets by going to direct primaries with plurality winners. It’s entirely possible to have both candidates that reflect the politically involved and those who reflect more casual voters. The problem is getting both on the ballot.

So here’s what I propose: allow candidates who fail to cinch the party nomination, either at convention or in a closed primary, the chance to remain on the ballot. A couple of possibilities are that they would either have to drop their party affiliation to do so or the ballot would need to clearly indicate who obtained the party nomination. This doesn’t require that we smash the existing nominating system, but it does give candidates a shot at bouncing back.

The odds are still good that the party nominee has the better chance, but it’s not a sure thing. Can you imagine how much fun it would have been to watch Mike Lee and Bob Bennett beat up on each other while Sam Granato watched fecklessly from the sidelines? It would also be a Good Thing(TM) to eliminate the signature requirements for independent candidates.

Of course, ballot access alone creates its own set of problems. Some candidates would probably choose to advance only to serve as a spoiler effect, an unfortunate feature of a system where a plurality vote determines the victor. Mitigating this would require some way to shake out the less-popular candidates while still allowing less-funded candidates a fair shake at victory. There’s a few options available.

One option is to use the so-called “jungle primary”. In this system, all candidates are placed on the ballot and the top two vote-getters advance to a run-off election. In districts that favor one political party over another, this can advance only members of that party to a general election. That can either be good or bad depending on your choices and perspective. It can also feature some of the worst elements of general primaries, allowing those with money and name recognition to more easily advance. This may be counter-balanced by the party nomination, but it would be hard to tell.

Another is using instant run-off voting (IRV). This requires you to rank candidates in order of preference. The candidate with the lowest vote total is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the second choice until someone obtains a majority vote. This gives some decent odds to long-shot candidates by eliminating the “wasted vote” conundrum. You can vote for the best candidate while still propping up a reasonable alternative. A downside is that you often get a very crowded field of candidates.

I think a reasonable solution is combining the best features of the two. After the party nominating process, candidates who either win the nomination or run as an independent would face off in a general primary open to all voters with the top four vote-getters advancing to the general election. The top four candidates would then advance to an IRV general election. The general primary could be skipped if there’s four or fewer candidates. This strikes a balance between opening up the process to more candidates, maintaining the existing party nomination system, and weeding out “novelty” candidates who really just want to have an audience to speak to.

What do you think? Would a system like this address your concerns with election reform? Or do you have a better idea? Sound off in the comments.

Count My Vote is Elitism Wearing a Populist Jacket


It's a trap!A tried and tested political strategy is to appeal to the majority. Nothing wins points like tapping into popular opinion, and the Count My Vote effort is trying to do just that. Unfortunately, just like so many other efforts that do the same, they’re just the same old tired elitism trying on a new outfit. I’m not fooled, and you shouldn’t be either.

The first sign that this isn’t some grassroots effort is the money involved. So far, donors have contributed an average of $21K a pop. That’s enough money to run a pretty successful  state house race. Count My Vote has raised enough for 21 such races. That’s an awful lot of money to spend on changing the party nominating process, especially when it would have a lot of influence in state and local races.

Then we need to take a glance at the names involved. It reads like a who’s who of Utah politics. Millers? Check. Mathesons? Check. Leavitts? Check. Del Loy Hansen, Bruce Bastian, Merit Medical, and a whole host of others who have been long entrenched in the political process are also on board. It looks an awful  lot like a turf war by people with lots of money and name recognition. It’s almost as if they have a vested personal interest.

The real irony here is that the Count My Vote initiative, backed by well-financed political elites, is trying to convince you that the caucus system is somehow more elitist. It’s hard to see how switching to a system that thrives primarily on large donors and name recognition beats out a system that also allows someone willing to wear out a few pairs of shoes a real shot at public office.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxFOVtr9fbk]

Don’t be fooled by the language they use. The push to change the party nomination process is a smokescreen for further consolidating political power. If these people were really interested in providing greater choice to the voters, they’d work on allowing easier ballot access and run-off elections. Instead, they want to make sure their well-financed picks are at the top of the Republican ticket each time, an almost guarantee of winning the general election in much of the state. Sounds a whole lot like elitism to me.

Chad Bennion, Please Resign


Last year, I registered as part of the Republican Party after years of being completely non-partisan. While a large part of it was a desire to see the abysmal Orrin Hatch finally put out of office, I also wanted to be part of the effort to clean up the party internally. Lately, newly-elected Salt Lake County Republican Party Chair Chad Bennion has made it obvious why there’s still a lot of work to do on the second front. I’d like to lead the charge in calling for, nay, demanding Bennion’s swift resignation.

In case you aren’t familiar with why I’d make this call, witness the comments he’s recently made concerning Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and his office’s decision that the West Valley Police Department’s officer-involved shooting and subsequent death of Danielle Willard was not justified. Considering that Bennion’s day job is at a law firm representing the Fraternal Order of Police, it’s no small wonder he’d use slurs like “cop hater” against anyone who dares to cross the thin blue line.

This on its own is enough to be disappointed and oppose his re-election, but not quite enough to go farther. What really pushes this into resignation territory is the action taken by Chair Bennion last night. He used the official email list of the Salt Lake County GOP to push an “officer support rally” event to further rail against the District Attorney. In effect, the Chair is using his position in the party to use party resources to push the interests of his employer, a law firm representing members of the Fraternal Order of Police. This is an ethical breach so egregious that anyone with a lick of common sense wouldn’t dare do it. Unfortunately, it appears that Bennion is quite deficient.

Chad Bennion, you need to resign your position as Chair of the Salt Lake County Republican Party effective immediately. This gross misconduct besmirches the party’s reputation and wastes political capital that should be spent on elections.

Updated to reflect Bennion’s correct association with the FOP.

What makes a great argument in favor of the caucus? John Swallow


If you aren’t familiar with how deep the trouble Utah Attorney General John Swallow finds himself in, Daniel Burton has a great summary for you. In a nutshell, it seems that he’s been involved in numerous shady business deals, campaign donations, and pay-to-play schemes for several years and has dragged his former boss, Mark Shurtleff, into it as well. A lot of people are using it to indict the caucus and convention system used to nominate candidates. When faced with the facts, however, we should see that the converse is true.

In the primary election, John Swallow beat challenger Sean Reyes for the GOP nomination almost 70% to 30%. Swallow had a mountain of campaign cash, the endorsement of outgoing Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, and name recognition from being a previous lawmaker and candidate for various offices. Reyes was heavily handicapped in the primary game, one that requires an expensive marketing campaign to win.

Compare this to the results of the GOP convention. Swallow barely managed a 9-point lead, nowhere near enough to prevent a primary. Despite it taking many more months before Swallow’s skeletons came crashing out his closet into the lead story of every media outlet in the state, it seems that a much higher percentage of the delegates knew something we didn’t. It’s almost as if the delegates were better-informed than the general voting public.

The next time you get the urge to trash the current nominating process, maybe you should keep in mind that it was caucus attendees that did a better job at trying to prevent the Swallow debacle than the voting public at large.

Utah should decline Medicaid expansion


One of the hot-button issues to be discussed at the upcoming legislative session is whether or not to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. The Act provides 100% funding to begin with, then drops back to 90% (or possibly less) in future years. That big sack of money makes for a pretty tantalizing offer, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to take it. Here’s why.

The obvious problem is that most of the Medicaid expansion money is only available via federal borrowing. It’s pretty easy to rationalize that the money will be spent anyway, so we should get our share. It’s also easy to justify as being a relatively small amount of money compared to the current budget deficit. To be fair, I think this is probably one of the weaker arguments against the expansion, but I do think that, even as a largely symbolic gesture, it’s a good idea to put our money where our mouth is on federal spending.

A deeper problem (and, indeed, the core problem with the ACA) is that a Medicaid expansion is subsidizing an overpriced healthcare system rather than attempting to resolve the cost issues that make even routine procedures unaffordable. True, using a subsidy may alleviate the symptom for some, but there is no mechanism to try and curb costs. This is a long-term recipe for requiring more subsidies to maintain the same levels of care. This turns into a vicious downward spiral where both costs and subsidies for that cost continue to rise. The end result is that more people end up relying on Medicaid and the cycle continues.

Since the Medicaid expansion doesn’t appear to be serious about either controlling costs or providing flexibility in doing so, I see no reason why Utah should get involved with it. There are much better solutions out there, such as targeting hotspots, that can both curb Medicaid spending and provide a much higher level of care while driving down costs across the board. Let’s do something smarter than tossing a multi-billion dollar bandage on the problem.

Yes, John Swallow, you need to resign


Most of us who play inside ball knew from the start that John Swallow was bad news. After a decade of questionable choices in his actions (all seemingly carefully crafted to be just on the inside of legal), he’s now finding himself caught up in a very serious accusation of being involved in a bribery scheme. While Swallow denies attempting to bribe US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, what he does admit to is enough that he needs to step aside for the good of the state and the office. A few highlights:

  • He transferred ownership of a consulting business to his wife in order to avoid including it on campaign disclosure forms. This business was allegedly setup to provide services to Jeremy Johnson.
  • There is both a recorded conversation and email record showing that Swallow knew he was walking right up to the line of barely being legal.
  • Most importantly, he has admitted to providing legal advice and referrals to Johnson despite knowing that he was the subject of an ongoing investigation. This breach of legal ethics, providing advice to a potential future defendant while serving in a prosecutorial role, is egregious enough to warrant potential disbarment.

All of these actions only further the accusations and rumblings that the AG’s office has been effectively operating a paid protection racket, allowing donors to write a check to make problems go away. Even if there is nothing to them, bringing this dark of a cloud with you should warrant that you leave immediately. Multiple newspapers agree. So do high-profile politicos.

And so do I.

Mr. Swallow, you need to put the good of the state and the office of Attorney General above your personal (and often transparent) political ambitions. It’s time for you to resign.

Where I Stand 2012: State School Board, Judges, and Ballot Questions


These are my picks for state school board, judicial retention, and ballot questions as part of a continuing series of who I’m voting for this election cycle.

State School Board 10: Dave Crandall

I’ll repeat what I said last time: more tech people in government is good, so I’m happy giving Dave Crandall another four years. I’m also very uncomfortable that his opponent, Nina Marie Welker, is touting her experience as a delegate as a reason to vote for her. Sorry, but you’ll have to do better than that.

Judicial Retention: No to All

The state of Utah has a website where you can evaluate judges based on feedback from jurors and attorneys. In theory, this is supposed to help you make an informed decision about which judges need to stay and which need to go. Personally, I find it rather worthless. Our legal system has all kinds of serious systemic problems in it, and many of those problems often come from a collusion between judges and lawyers. Judges almost always fly through retention elections with a victory rate that’d make any Congressman jealous. Are we really to believe that judges are really this far above reproach? I do not. As a result, I cast a no vote in the off chance that we change up the makeup of the courts and catch the occasional egregious offender.

State Constitutional Amendment A: For

Whenever mineral resources are extracted and removed from the state, the removing business must pay a severance tax. This constitutional amendment would require that a portion of this money be placed in a permanent trust to be invested and create future interest revenues. Given that the severance tax is a one-time revenue source, this seems like a smart fiscal move. I have no problems voting for this amendment.

State Constitutional Amendment B: Against

I have a big problem with making the tax code favor any particular group over another, even if it’s wrapped in good intentions. This constitutional amendment would allow military personnel who are deployed out-of-state for more than 200 days a year to be exempted from paying property taxes. While I’m sure that at least one person will call me an America-hater and insult my mother, I can’t in good conscience support this kind of exemption. Not only would it cause severe financial hardship in the towns closest to military installations, it would imbalance the tax code based on the voluntary choice of profession. I can’t see that this is a net benefit to the community, but rather a hand-0ut of sorts to a specific group. I have to vote against this amendment.

Salt Lake County Proposition 1: Against

Really? Another open space and parks bond already? Look, I like both open space and parks. I don’t have a problem paying for them. I do have a problem with issuing bond after bond after bond for them, inflating the cost to double what it would be if we paid out-of-pocket. I have to vote against this on principle to encourage the county to make me pay more for it now so that I can pay a lot less later. Learn to save up for these things, guys.

Where I Stand 2012: Salt Lake County Offices


These are my picks for Salt Lake County offices as part of a continuing series of who I’m voting for this election cycle. As a resident of an unincorporated township, these offices are especially important to me as they are, in effect, my city government.

Salt Lake County Mayor: Ben McAdams

This is probably one of the most difficult races I’ve had to weigh in on. This is one of the few occasions where I think we’re getting a chance to pick between the better of two goods, so I don’t have a clear choice to be made. While I believe Mark Crockett’s political positions match my own most closely,  general temperament concerns me. Several high-profile Republicans have opted to cross party lines and endorse Ben McAdams. More than a few of them have alleged that the campaign has threatened them with intra-party reprisals for doing so. Among them is Steve Urquhart, someone who I know to be honest and unlikely to make up something like this. I’m also a bit concerned at his adversarial tone in the campaign including during the GOP primary.

Ben McAdams leans a good bit left of where I do, but he’s a competent manager, and I believe he will carry out his executive duties exceptionally well. Given that the county is often providing services to and working jointly with cities throughout the county, I think his experience building consensus is going to be a much better asset to county government than matching my ideology so rigidly.

Salt Lake County Council At-Large C: Joseph M. Demma

The big question facing the county is between contraction in the face of wall-to-wall cities or an attempt to preserve things largely as they are. The shrinking direct tax base lost to incorporation leaves the remaining islands of county land in the position of incorporating, being annexed, or seeing a tremendous tax increase to pay for municipal services to an ever-shrinking base. While I’ve been very happy to not be a party of the city of Sandy (and it’s sales tax-obsessed mayor, Tom Dolan), I can see the writing on the wall that this is likely to end up changing Real Soon Now(TM) as Millcreek moves towards incorporation and drives the final nail into the tax base. As such, I’ve got to support the candidate that acknowledges this eventuality and tries to get ahead of it.

The county needs to move away from the 20% of the budget stuck in municipal services and focus more on its duties to provide the services delegated to it by the state. I’ve met Joseph Demma and think he’d do well carrying out this vision. Jim Bradley has left me with the feeling that he wants to keep things as they are. While I get that this is a popular idea for hold-out communities like mine (White City), I think we need to take our lumps now and move forward.

Salt Lake County Council 6: Max L. Burdick

This one has the same issues as the at-large race with a twist: I’ve known Paul Recanzone, one of the candidates, for a number of years and we share a passion for broadband policy. Outside of this, though, I don’t know that we can find a lot more common ground. The county doesn’t have a role to play in education (that’s handled by school districts), labor laws (that’s a state function), or the state code (a function of the legislature), but he takes positions on all of them. What about incorporation of townships? Parks and trails? The Unified Police District and Unified Fire Authority? I’m left with a feeling that there’s a lot of passion, but not necessarily for county issues. It doesn’t help that Paul leans a lot further left than I’d like either.

I’ve been happy with Max Burdick’s work so far, and I feel he’s on board for the county to make the upcoming transitions into a more focused role.

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