Last night, the Utah Legislature finally signed off on a map for Congressional districts. Unsurprisingly, more than a few individuals were engaged in over-the-top weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth that could teach William Shanter more than a few things about over-acting. While I can accept a lot of legitimate complaints about the final product (it’s not my first choice either), a lot of the claims made by critics are either logically inconsistent or flat-out lies.
One of the proposals before the Legislature this year is to increase the gas tax. That’s one of those sure-fire ways to provoke a strong reaction since we’re all pretty sensitive about the cost of driving. That said, I don’t think it’s really an increase. And at the risk of putting any kind of future electability in complete peril, I don’t have a problem with it at all.
If the Utah Legislature was looking for a way to unite people across the political spectrum, HB477 was a great way to do it. Unfortunately for them, it united everyone against the Legislature in a rather loud cacophony, present company included. The bill went from introduced to passed by both houses in just three days with the stipulation that it take effect as soon as it’s signed instead of after the normal sixty days. This alone prompted a strong negative reaction, never mind what the bill actually does: classifying many types of communication as “conversations” rather than “records” and thus not subject to the state’s GRAMA laws, Utah’s version of the Freedom of Information Act. This really doesn’t sound like a whole lot of good.
I’m a big fan of local control for practical reasons. You often get elected officials that are much more responsive and in-tune with the needs of their constituents. Bad decisions are contained to a much smaller effective area and experimentation with good ideas leads to more of them. When elected leaders fail to make good decisions or respond to the needs of the people, the “throttle factor” is often much better with your city council member than a state or federal representative.
We’ve seen this play out on the federal level for decades now. Bad decisions made at that level affect everyone rather than just a limited subset of the populace. The all-or-nothing gamesmanship often leads to contradictory laws and policies that are confusing and keep either from actually prevailing. Our state legislature often rails upon these failings, but now they’re turning around and doing the exact same thing to the cities and counties.
I’ve already covered my requirements of someone running for federal office. In a lot of ways, managing a state can be even more complex than handling federal issues. Many problems tackled by the legislature are often based around narrowly-defined groups of people that cross political and sometimes geographic boundaries. It also requires more discipline since going into massive debt isn’t on the table as an option. Here’s what I expect out of anyone running for state office.
Local governments all around are facing some tough times and Salt Lake County is no different. The county had to make some deep cuts, over 17%, to make ends meet. Certainly lean times lead to creative solutions, but I’m not so sure about the way that the Unified Police Department has chosen to go about it.
As you may have read, the UPD has decided to implement a fee for police service to be collected once a quarter. This fee is about $174 per year. That in and of itself isn’t that big of a deal to me. What is a big deal is the manner in which this fee is being collected and the manner in which the county is trying to spin it. Call it a fee, a surcharge, or whatever you want, it’s still a tax.
What’s particularly laughable is that this fee is being billed as somehow much more transparent than an annual property tax statement. On the contrary, it’s even less so. My property tax statement contains line items for each service that I am receiving. I can, at a glance, figure out how much I pay for fire, library, and even garbage service. If the increase cost of policing were, instead, listed as a line item on my property tax bill, I would still know exactly what I’m paying for police service. By keeping it on a separate statement, however, I now have to start adding up various bills to figure out just how much my local government costs. Making a taxpayer do more work to figure out what they are paying and what it is for is less transparency, not more.
It’s also a non-argument that using fees instead of taxes gives the county more flexibility. If the county can’t implement flexible taxation based on residence type or the number of employees at a business, then it’s time to ask the legislature to make changes to the law. I agree in principle that businesses that create higher police costs should bear a higher portion of the burden. (You may also notice that apartments are charged more than homeowners, a tacit admission that single-dwelling units cause less crime.) It’s also a good thing to have non-profits contributing at least something to the costs of running the county. Just don’t use fees as a end-run around legislative roadblocks. That kind of behavior doesn’t solve the problem and, more often than not, incurs the wrath of the legislature with retaliatory new laws.
I was perusing through the list of bills filed so far up at the hill and came across SB38, Restrictions on High Occupancy Vehicle Lane. This adopts a practice used in many other states that turns HOV lanes into normal lanes outside of peak traffic hours defined in the bill as 6AM to 9AM and 4PM to 7PM. This would certainly be a welcome change to help lessen congestion outside of the morning and evening commutes.
Even so, I see a few tweaks worth considering before it hits the final version. The lane restrictions would remain in effect all days of the week, not just on weekdays. Given the low traffic on Saturdays and Sundays, it would make sense to amend the bill so that HOV restrictions are only in effect Monday through Friday. I also question the wisdom of removing the double white lines and restricted lane access. I could see suspending the rules of lane entry and exit during non-peak hours, but during peak hours you have crazy drivers darting in and out to make a quick pass, even if they are ineligible to use the lane at that time. That’s why they were put there in the first place.
I’ve already e-mailed Sen. Karen Morgan to provide this feedback. Even without modification, I think this is a good common-sense bill that should be passed.
Utah finds itself in yet another deep budget hole, this time to the tune of nearly $1B. This, of course, sets of the debate of if the Legislature should cut spending, raise taxes, or a bit of both. Sen. Steve Urquhart, who I have tremendous respect for, has called for his colleagues to oppose any new tax increases, focusing instead on finding places to make cuts. His rationale is that the rate of growth in state government expenditures has outpaced population plus inflation. While this sounds like a sound argument, it doesn’t mesh with some stark realities.
The demand for state services is not a function of just population and nowhere is this more obvious than in our transportation budgets. As we continue to live in the burbs and commute to work, vehicle miles driven has actually grown as much as twice as fast as population. The cost of construction materials has also risen dramatically higher than inflation as China and India consume more of the world’s steel and concrete supply. Education has also taken a hit as more ESL students enter our school systems, students that have a significantly higher cost to educate. (Large immigrant populations account for a significant part of New York’s high education spending and drag their results down.) A rigid formula leaves little room to address these kinds of variances.
We should also consider that despite all of the posturing, Utah’s state budget has been fairly stable as a percentage of state GDP. During the last two decades, it has fluctuated from a low of 15.5% to a high of 17.2%. That is an amazing amount of restraint given the large surpluses that we had just a few years ago. Whether this is because of or despite the hand-wringing about state government spending is anyone’s guess, but the caricature of free-spending double-talkers seems better suited to Congresscritters than it does our state government.
While I can certainly appreciate the sentiment against raising taxes unnecessarily, you can’t just sweep that option off of the table wholesale. I hope our state representatives and senators will bear this in mind as they start making tough decisions next month.