Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Legistlative Town Hall Meeting Wrap-Up: Waffle Waffle, "Hillary Care," Unintentional Feminism

I just returned this evening from a Town Meeting with my legislators. It was an interesting exchange, one which I am sure will be repeated across our state. When I got there, the first four people to talk were relatives of the panelists, which was puzzling. It finally got real interesting when Kim Burningham, State School Board Member, started talking about the governor’s proposed budget and how great it was for education. That was followed by some cautionary discussion by Rep. Sheryl Allen (R-19), who, in deference to Sen. Eastman (R-23), said that the current state of the budget was a “potential surplus.” Odd prudence, beacuse Eastman stood strongly in favor of another tax cut, because the surplus is so large; however, he did temper that with the good idea of paying off some of the bonds in order to keep the AAA rating.

There were some pretty good questions, but some were weird. Here were the highlights, and lowlights:

Ø The legislators were stumped when they were asked about altering and increasing the deduction for medical expenses on the Utah state tax form. A very well-informed individual on the subject let them know that once, the deduction would apply to those few individuals whose expenses over the past year were equal to 7% of their gross income. Today, though, many people, even those on Medicare Part D plans, regularly see health-related expenses reach that 7% threshold. The legislators asked for a tax accountant, but were met with crickets. More importantly though, Eastman and Allen deflected the question into a general discussion on the flat tax, in which Allen admitted that the number of people eligible for the higher tier of the dual track system would drop from 10% of Utahns in 2006 to 5% in 2007. The man called them out on that stupidity, but they moved on to the next question.

Ø One of my former teachers, Brian Ferguson, now a librarian at South Davis Junior High, made an impassioned defense of public schools against private schools. He noted one of the major problems with tuition tax credits: the lack of accountability for how our tax dollars are spent for private education. He answered his own questions for the most part, pointing out how most proposals have no requirements for what a school is, teacher certification, testing requirements, graduation ethics, time and days in school, etc. When he was finished, they moved on to the next question, without taking up his concerns.

Ø I had the opportunity to ask a couple of questions. I phrased my questions in the context of the 2004 election; as we should recall, Huntsman campaigned on a platform of economic growth providing the state resources for education funding increases. Now that we have strong economic growth (for the state budget at least), I asked whether they would fulfill the promise of Governor Huntsman by acting on his proposals concerning increased education funding, which Mr. Burningham outlined in his earlier remarked. I asked for a yea or nay from each one. Then I asked them to answer the questions of Mr. Ferguson about accountability for public dollars going to private schools. Responses varied, to say the least.

o Rep. Allen said she would strongly support the Governor’s proposals, as they are now. Drawing on the surveys she has done (not always scientific) and finding most constituents opposed to the idea, she vowed to oppose any tuition tax credit bill or voucher legislation.

o Rep. Neuenschwander (R-20), who was quiet for most of the meeting, waffled around both issues. He said the House Republican caucus wanted greater increases to the WPU, but he failed to say how he would vote on the proposal as is. Then he really waffled back and forth on the voucher issue, not taking any real stand, asking for more input. Why did the UEA support this guy? I predict arm-twisting will push him into voting for vouchers.

o Sen. Eastman made it clear that it was just a budget proposal and was not binding on the legislature to take any action. Then he said more money should go to tax cuts. Then he gave a defense of charter schools as the middle of the road for the voucher debate. Then he said he would support a voucher bill if would come out of committee this year. Following all that, he waffled on how he would enforce accountability for such things, drifting off into how PUBLIC schools needed more oversight and accountability for how funding is spent in each district. It took three questions from three different people, including myself, to remind him that I was asking about accountability for private schools using taxpayer dollars. He eventually admitted his ideal was a pilot program whereby 1500 vouchers would be distributed via lottery to any student to use and then they would be “evaluated” in rather vague terms.

Ø One lady was very upset at the lack of public transit available in Bountiful, wishing that Trax was extended into Bountiful. She justified this on the growing population of senior citizens in Southern Davis County. Eastman expressed his displeasure with UTA, claiming that it had reneged on earlier plans to expand Trax into Southern Davis, start Express routes through the county, and how they had actually reduced stops in the county. They seemed rather impotent when it was pointed out that they had no power over the operations of UTA due to their “quasi-governmental” status. This brought an incredulous reaction from the crowd, whereby Eastman expressed his desire that UTA be rebuilt with a stronger state government component.

Ø The second to last speaker went off on a diatribe against public education. Noting that God holds parents accountable for the education of children, not bureaucrats, he argued against “socialized education.” Under the logic that 90% of the attendees would be against “Hillary Care,” we should be against schools being socialized, because socialism has destroyed every nation and civilization in which it has been attempted. He was scared that children were being taught more about sex than God, our schools were overrun by gangs, and that they were being taught socialist values. The solution to this problem is to allow parents to be accountable for their children’s education. Picking up on a previous commenter’s concern that polygamists could set up their own private school and get voucher money, he said he had no problem with that because they were getting God in their school (I would argue that, in a polygamist school, sex and God would become one). What he meant by all this I don’t know; I can only assume he favored vouchers. Rep. Allen made it clear the abstinence-only policy of sex-ed in Utah, and Mr. Burningham was very defensive of the schools, to the point of upsetting this gentleman again. So many problems with his ideas, so little space.

Ø The final speaker was a mother who complained about her value in Utah’s tax system. She was appalled that, apparently, mothers who stay at home for the first year of their child’s life receive only a $100 deduction. Noting her advanced degree, she said she would contribute a lot to the economy by working, but chose to contribute to society by raising her five children in her home. Her argument was essentially based on feminist economic theory, though she would probably be appalled by that description. It was interesting to end the meeting on that note.

My conclusions:

I expect little or nothing from Rep. Neuenschwander; tonight’s meeting left the impression in my mind that he is typical Republican follower, a back-bencher who will continue to uphold the failed legislative traditions of Ann Hardy and Richard Siddoway. I liked those two personally but both proved legislative failures. (Stopping school sports recruitment, emasculating GRAMA, etc).

Dan Eastman is exactly the same as he was six years ago; he is a conservative car dealer who is also a follower, but I believe he is player behind the scenes in getting Republicans in line. However, he expressed very little individual thought and again leaves Southern Davis County without real legislative clout in the Senate. While Lane Beattie wasn’t my ideal State Senator, at least he was effective.

Rep. Allen is a true moderate, but I question her willingness to stand up for her beliefs in the face of strong conservative opposition in her district. Marc Jacobs, similar to John Jacob, self-destructed near the end of the primary; however, I believe her moderate convictions do represent almost all of her constituents, expect the few who are willing to fund a primary opponent (most of which were outside her district anyway). I hold hopes she will demonstrate political courage by making a strong stand for education this session, become the Republican moderate leader the Legislature desperately needs. However, I am skeptical; but I don’t vote for her anyway.

Kim Burningham is an invaluable asset on the School Board. Articulate, calm, but he was tough when challenged tonight; he didn’t back down when he took on the second to last speaker. It’s a shame he’s not in the legislature anymore.

I believe Democrats must have in their message this year a challenge for the Huntsman administration. If he does not live up to his 2004 election promises to spend excess money gained from pro-growth economics, we need to call him out on that. His budget proposes some great ideas, but we need to point out his impotence if he cannot get it past the legislature. If only we had a candidate to challenge him.

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