Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ethics Reform Revisited

I hope everyone had a little time off to spend with family and friends and that your holidays were well spent. With the New Year right around the corner and, perhaps more importantly, the 2009 Legislative session only 3 weeks away, it's just about time to wipe the sleep out of our eyes and pay attention to what lawmakers have in store for us next year. The presents and candy-induced comas will have their turn again sooner than we realize.

In preparation for the upcoming legislative session, I'd like to revisit a few points concerning ethics reform. In October I wrote about the efforts of Utahns for Public Schools to bring about positive change in regards to campaign finance. They published a Pledge for Legislative Ethics Reform and invited candidates and legislators to sign it as a vow of their active support and work for the passage of legislation that would allow for a more open, honest, ethical and transparent government. As of today, 24 Republicans, 47 Democrats and 1 Independent have signed the pledge. However, now that the election results have been tallied and the winners declared, there are only 31 out of 72 who are in a position to make good on their promise. They are:

Sheryl Allen, House District 19 (R)
Trisha Beck (NEW), House District 48 (D)
Laura Black (NEW), House District 45 (D)
Rebecca Chavez-Houck, House District 24 (D)
Tim Cosgrove, House District 44 (D)
Jim Dunnigan, House District 39 (R)
Becky Edwards (NEW), House District 20 (R)
Richard K. Ellis, (NEW), State Treasurer (R)
Julie Fisher, House District 17 (R)
Gage Froerer, House District 8 (R)
Kevin S. Garn, House District 16 (R)
Francis D. Gibson (NEW), House District 65 (R)
Richard Greenwood, House District 12 (R)
Greg Hughes, House District 51 (R)
Christine Johnson, House District 25 (D)
Pat Jones, Senate District 4 (D)*
Dan Liljenquist (NEW), Senate District 23 (R)
David Litvak, House District 26 (D)
Steve Mascaro, House District 47 (R)
Scott McCoy, Senate District 2 (D)
Ronda Rudd Menlove, House District 1 (R)
Karen Morgan (NEW), Senate District 8 (D)**
Marie H. Poulson (NEW), House District 46 (D)
Kraig Powell (NEW), House District 54 (R)
Luz Robles, (NEW), Senate District 1 (D)
Paul Ray, House District 13 (R)
Phil Riesen, House District 36 (D)
Jay Seegmiller (NEW), House District 49 (D)
Jennifer Seelig, House District 23 (D)
Carol Spackman Moss, House District 37 (D)
Christine F. Watkins (NEW), House District 69 (D)

Hopefully there are more legislators who support the pledge but for one reason or another have not signed it. I find it interesting that of all the signers only one current legislator (Pat Jones) who wasn't running for re-election bothered to sign the pledge. I don't believe Utahns for Public Schools meant for this to be a campaign tool, although that's what it ended up being. I would challenge any legislator not listed above to get a signed copy of the pledge in the mail ASAP. There was a time when your word was as good as gold, and perhaps it is for some of you, but how are we to know you care? I suppose we could email or call and ask each one of you individually, but why not let us all know by signing the pledge? If you're not in favor of ethics reform or if you disagree with certain points of the pledge, feel free to post a comment here and let us know what you would do differently. The people, your constituents, are interested in a change. The only people who can make that happen is you, the lawmakers. Now, more then ever, you can see that a change is needed. I personally hope that ethics reform goes beyond the points listed in the Utahns for Public Schools pledge (such as the formation of an independent ethics commission), but let's start somewhere! Please let us know that you hear us!

*Incumbent that did not run for re-election in 2008
**Retired seat in House (District 46), new to Senate

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

House Ethics Committee: Newly-expanded role, but any real change?

Last week, incoming House Speaker David Clark R-Santa Clara reported on a newly-expanded role for the House Ethics Committee. Good news, right? I would hope so, but I also have a nose for lip service, band-aids, and all things superficial. Maybe it's a good step towards more accountability and ethics reform, but it sounds more like an emphasis on training legislators on what is and is not ethically appropriate so that, in Representative Clark's words, "it reduces the [disciplinary] meetings we have to hold." To be fair, it sounds like legislators have also tasked staff attorneys with drafting 17 new ethics bills, along with a few bills addressing campaign finance and lobbyist regulation. This piques my interest because there is at least some change and attention addressing the essential topic of ethics. However, I still believe the real issues and the most direct and effective solutions are being side-stepped.

On this site, Sara and I have called for at least two fundamental changes in ethics reform, and they bear repeating:

1. Strong, clearly-written, and enforceable ethics legislation
2. An independent Ethics Commission

Ethics Legislation
As you may remember, Representative Greg Hughes was recently reviewed for ethics violations. While the bi-partisan House Ethics Committee cleared Hughes, all eight members signed a letter faulting his conduct as "unbecoming a member of the Utah House." "We request that Representative Hughes take steps to change his behavior," the panel wrote, "and to make appropriate apologies to those who may have been affected."

Part of the reason Hughes was cleared came down to dubiously less-than-clear legislation....language so vague as to blur culpability for any number of otherwise obvious misdeeds.

Independent Ethics Commission

Back in August, Sara wrote an excellent post on the topic of legislative ethics, outlining the process for filing and reviewing an ethics complaint and underscoring some of the current problems with the process....along with the obvious need for an independent state ethics commission. Utah is one of ten states who have not formed an independent Ethics Commission. In our case, we have Senate and House Ethics Committees, intended to be bi-partisan in nature with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. Utah also relies on the Attorney General's office to provide ethics oversight.
However, given the recent ethics debacles and their subsequent investigations (or relative lack thereof), it doesn't take much to realize that legislators policing legislators is not an ideal model.
Impress Us, Please!
Believe me, I want to be impressed. No, I want to be blown away by how seriously our legislators take ethics, but let's not be fooled by feel-good reports of changes to the House Ethics Committee if they don't translate into real change. Keep an eye on this committee, the bills being drafted....and whether or not the bills even make it out of the House Rules Committee.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Is Utah Senator Howard Stephenson looking for a new job?

A week ago the Salt Lake Tribune wrote an article entitled "Did Utah senator's advocacy go too far?" and quoted from emails that he had written to the Utah State Office of Education (USOE). The tone of the emails spoke for themselves; Senator Stephenson was obviously upset. "I've had it" and "This is past a joke" were only two of many phrases that ripped into Superintendent Harrington and employees of USOE. The article was likely prompted by the Utah State Board of Education's recent change in Board Rule that now prohibits unauthorized personnel (including legislators) to view Requests for Proposal (RFP). The new rule was adopted in response to Stephenson's continued pressure and "help" that he was offering USOE. Superintendent Patti Harrington felt the need to protect her staff from political pressure and the Board agreed.

The article, and two subsequent follow-up articles, didn't make Howard Stephenson very happy. He decided to use his weekly Red Meat Radio program to let people know that he feels justified in his actions. He has "worked behind the scenes to try to get improvement there" and he wanted to "expose the underbelly of the most dysfunctional office in the state." He obviously has some very strong feelings. Despite the cooperation of Superintendent Harrington as she has worked so hard to be as cooperative as she could (read the emails, they speak for themselves) and they've worked things out before with success. Instead of acting like a statesman, an elected official, a man becoming a legislator, he makes a coherent, planned, thought-out decision to do USOE further harm and inflict further pressure. Is this how business is done on the Hill? Didn't somebody just get reprimanded for this kind of behavior?

Howard Stephenson is a senior member of the Senate, as he pointed out on his radio program, and Chair of the Public Education Joint Appropriations Committee. He has a lot of ideas about technology and education. His opinions are so strong and he believes he is so powerful that he has no problem getting involved. But is his involvement going too far? Is he trying to do a job that isn't his to do?

Everyone knows an "expert" who thinks they know everything, shouting the answers across the room to questions that weren't asked of them. They overheard the question and they know the answer! Sometimes there isn't even a question being asked, but they're still there, more than willing to let you know their opinion. Bosses out there may relate even better to someone in their office who is always trying to take over, who speak on your behalf when it hasn't been authorized for them to do so. Learning to deal with eager-beavers is a part of life and eventually most of them learn how to control their outbursts. We tend to have little patience for their actions and our annoyance is usually read as a sign that their behavior is unwelcome and inappropriate. Sometimes you must put your foot down and declare, "If you want my job why don't you just apply for it?!"

This seems to be the case with Howard Stephenson. He is so eager to do the job that may or may not be getting done at the Utah State Office of Education that he's literally trying to do it for them. This may reflect on USOE, but it also reflects on Stephenson. Why is he so insistent that one particular business get a contract over another company? Some suggest that he has something to gain, but what if he doesn't. What if he just really believes in the company and believes that they'll do the best job? He gave them an hour infomercial on Saturday during his radio program, ending with their phone number and website address; he must really like them. That's fine, but it's not his job to select the company! That's the job of USOE. If he wants to make decisions in that arena then I suggest he apply within. He certainly has the passion, perhaps he'd do ok in such a position, but he's not in that position!

Stephenson also has some strong opinions on what style of math should be taught in public schools. Again, one might ask, "What's in it for him?" I haven't been able to come up with anything substantial as of yet, although I've looked. I can only surmise that there must be some ulterior motive, that's the conspiracy theorist in me, especially when it comes to Legislators. But even if there isn't, even if he just honestly believes that Singapore Math is the absolute best thing for our children, it's not his job to decide that!! There are people hired to make those decisions and their name is not Howard Stephenson.

There are other examples, that this blog may decide to investigate further, where Stephenson has overplayed his hand and exerted his power and influence. Stephenson referred to it as so-called meddling on his radio program. That may well have been a good action word to use, but his decision to go on the air and publicly criticize the office has elevated the verb to bullying. Sad that we all know what happens to bullies on the Hill. Virtually nothing!

Is his influence still too strong to resist? When we act annoyed at the know-it-alls around us, they usually aren't in a position to give us a cut in pay or even demand that we be fired. But Stephenson believes he is so powerful that he can do just that. It would appear as though he may actually have that kind of influence. Try calling either employee mentioned in the emails that Stephenson recommended be terminated. You won't find them in the jobs they were doing. One of them left USOE earlier than anyone expected and the other is now a secretary. I can't say for certain that both circumstances are not coincidental or unrelated, but somehow I think otherwise.

I hope that his colleagues will help him recognize the error of his ways and seek to advise him on how a Senator acts in what must be a difficult situation for him. No matter how justified he thinks he is, his actions and words are inappropriate, to say the least.

Monday, November 3, 2008

It's the Voters' Turn to Adjudge What's Ethical

I received the following letter written by attorneys David Irvine and Alan Smith this morning. I hope you'll read it, think about what this kind of behavior means for the state of our law-making process, and then vote accordingly. I'll let the letter speak for itself.

We are the attorneys (registered Republicans) who recently were not allowed to put on our clients’ case for ethics violations against Rep. Greg Hughes before the House Ethics Committee. The public may not be aware that, under the House rules of procedure governing ethics hearings, neither the legislators who petition nor their attorneys who have prepared the case for them are given any rights of participation in the ethics process once a complaint is filed. Hence, the committee members, who have no background, information, or knowledge respecting the charges presented, and with no training as investigators or prosecutors, must figure out what evidence might bear upon those charges, determine how to gather and hear that evidence, and adjudge a respondent’s guilt or innocence. In Hughes’s case, moreover, the committee was forced to do all of this on impossibly short notice, secretly, and within an extremely compressed time-line.

Notwithstanding these procedural biases which favor the accused legislator, all 8 members of the ethics committee, Republicans and Democrats, found that Hughes was guilty of “conduct unbecoming a legislator.” This rebuke was seconded with an admonition to apologize for his wrongdoing.

As to the ethics charges themselves, the committee gave Hughes a pass, not because it found him innocent, but because, in the Committee’s view, the legislature’s current ethics standards were too vague to be applied.

Putting the question of ethics aside, and looking at the evidence of crimes, former Republican legislator, Susan Lawrence, testified credibly and forcibly that Hughes had offered her a bribe. This testimony was corroborated by two other Republican legislators, Sheryl Allen and Paul Ray. Many if not all of the key witnesses who testified respecting the misconduct of Hughes, namely, Lawrence, Allen, Ray, Kim Burningham, and Margaret Bird, are Republicans. What is more, our Republican Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, has announced that a criminal docket might be opened to investigate the Lawrence bribery charge, and many believe that Hughes may be a co-conspirator in the Mark Walker bribery scandal and a subject of the grand jury proceeding recently instigated by two county attorneys, one a Republican, the other a Democrat. In the face of so much inculpation by fellow party members, it is no wonder that the Republican chair of the ethics Committee, Todd Kiser, closed the hearing by stating that he had seen exhibited, through days of evidence, a very “unstatesmanlike” exercise of enormous power by Hughes.

In addition to these adverse judgments by his Republican peers, the Democratic half of the committee membership found that there was clear and convincing evidence that Hughes was guilty of one count of bribery and two counts of extortion. On another charge, that Hughes had misused taxpayer monies, exercised undue influence with a government agency, and subverted the legislatively prescribed neutrality of that agency in a state-wide election, the Committee voted to absolve Hughes only because his Republican colleague, Senator Curtis Bramble, took the fall for him. Bramble testified that, although Hughes was in charge of the political organization which had perpetrated these wrongs, it was not Hughes, but Bramble, who had acted directly in relation to the agency involved. In other words, even though Hughes knew of the wrongdoing and was in a position to stop if not prevent it, he escaped conviction since he merely stood by, did nothing, and watched while Senator Bramble engaged in malfeasance on Hughes’s behalf. So much for “moral leadership.” (Indeed, the Republican leadership at the state legislature, notwithstanding some recent “noise” that they have “got religion” on ethics, isn’t rushing to bring charges against Bramble -- even though, while “falling on his sword” for Hughes at the ethics hearing, Bramble virtually admitted to conduct that is criminal, and, since then, has bragged on a talk radio program that he would repeat that conduct if occasion arises).

Hughes now claims that he was vindicated by the committee’s judgment that he engaged in conduct unbecoming a legislator. This claim could be Hughes showing off his mastery of overstatement. But it more likely reveals, once again, that his moral compass has a hard time finding true north. He stubbornly refuses to take responsibility for his own misconduct, blaming those who merely report his wrongdoing. He is willfully blind to the constitutional requirement that those who run for office must remain accountable to the body politic. Hughes is so far from these qualities of responsibility and accountability that, upon hearing that the ethics complaint had been filed, he went to the state capitol to “get a piece of” and “punch out” one of the legislators who had filed it. The Highway Patrol was called to prevent Hughes from physically harming a fellow legislator.

Under the present ethics procedures at the state capitol, a legislator may not be found guilty of misconduct unless there is “clear and convincing” evidence that he has been unethical. For the Republicans on the committee, that would seem to require a videotape of Hughes handing over a bag of cash to someone. But this is not the traditional standard by which those who are given power to be exercised in trust for the benefit of others have been or ought to be judged. Under this time-tested, yes, conservative standard, all fiduciaries, including legislators, once accused, have the burden of persuasion to show that their conduct has been proper, that their actions are above reproach and beyond suspicion. The public, in other words, should not have to worry, wonder, or debate whether their representative has been above-board in his dealings – since this would never occur, after all, if that representative had avoided even the appearance of impropriety. We respectfully submit that Rep. Hughes, in his dealings, has not come within a country mile of meeting this standard. Indeed, the only thing “clear and convincing” about the Hughes case is that he was convicted, by a unanimous, bi-partisan vote, of conduct unbecoming a member of the people’s House. That finding is a vote of “no confidence,” and certainly is no “exoneration.” The public should echo this vote on Nov. 4th by replacing him.

Posted with permission by the authors.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Call to Action for the House Rules Committee

Many of you have probably already taken advantage of early voting like I have, but with the official election day drawing near I can't help but want to stand here at the podium a few more times. While some of the immediate voting decisions we all need to make revolve around candidates and propositions, the immediacy of some of these decisions also begs some visionary and long-term questions. What do we value, what do we want, what can and should we expect from government leaders?

During the 2008 Legislative session, HB 130 (http://le.utah.gov/~2008/htmdoc/hbillhtm/HB0130.htm) outlined a proposal for creating a State Ethics Commission. As an important and necessary call to action for the entire state, hope was high for some real change in legislative oversight. In reality, the bill was summarily dismissed by the House Rules Committee. No policy committee debate, no policy committee work, no progress. The bill was killed.

I can't overstate how much power the House Rules Committee has in the legislative process. In a nutshell, this committee serves as gatekeeper. Proposed bills are submitted to this committee where they are discussed and potentially assigned to an approriate policy committee for further debate, refinement, and progress. Of course, any bill can be defeated even if it is assigned to a policy committee, but at least it has a chance to be debated and reviewed in committee work. And, bills that make it to committee are also more easily brought to the public's attention. However, the House Rules Committee can also cause a bill to be "held" which is, in effect, an immediate death sentence for the held bill. The bill goes nowhere and potentially important change is at least another year in coming.

I realize this is a simplistic and brief review, but the point is that this committee has a responsibility and power that sometimes goes unnoticed and unchallenged by the public at large. With so much current dialogue regarding ethics and another legislative session on the horizon, I thought it would be important for me to take a look at who currently serves on this committee.

The 2008 House Rules Committee (http://le.utah.gov/asp/interim/Commit.asp?Year=2008&Com=HSTRUL) who reviewed and killed HB 130 calling for an independent State Ethics Commission is currently comprised of the following members:

Rep. Stephen H. Urquhart, Chair
Rep. Gregory H. Hughes, Vice Chair
Rep. Jackie Biskupski
Rep. James A. Dunnigan
Rep. Kevin S. Garn

Rep. Neal B. Hendrickson
Rep. Michael T. Morley
John L. Fellows, General Counsel
John Q. Cannon, Managing Policy Analyst
Stewart E. Smith, Pol Analyst/Spec Projects Mngr

Election results could, of course, change the makeup of this committee. Tuesday will tell.

For now, in my opinion, HB 130 was a call to action for the entire Utah political machine. Since it was "held" and went nowhere, and there will undoubtedly be another ethics reform bill submitted in the future, this post is a very personal call to action specifically for the House Rules Committee during the upcoming 2009 Legislative Session: assign the bill, let there be debate, scrutiny, questions, refinement, public input, and real progress towards objective ethics oversight!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Know Your State School Board Candidates

The Utah State School Board election is being overshadowed by other elections, but that's not breaking news to you. It's not for lack of decent information about the School Board candidates that this race is being overlooked. There is plenty of information available if you know where to look. A quick google search gives you many options, but by the second page it's hit or miss. In hopes of saving you some time and making sure you're getting good information I've listed some of the resources I've used to get to know our Utah State School Board candidates.

District 1

  • Shelly Locke - UTPS Questionnaire, Trib Profile

  • District 4

  • Chris L. Dallin - UTPS Questionnaire, LWV Questions, Trib Profile
  • David Thomas - UTPS Questionnaire, LWV Questions, Trib Profile

  • Utah Moms Care

    District 7

  • Leslie Brooks Castle - Trib Profile
  • Randall A. Mackey (Incumbent) - UTPS Questionnaire, LWV Questions, Trib Profile
  • Utah Moms Care

    District 8

  • Janet A. Cannon (Incumbent) - UTPS Questionnaire, LWV Questions, Trib Profile
  • Trent E. Kaufman - UTPS Questionnaire, LWV Questions, Trib Profile

  • Utah Education Issues
    Utah Moms Care

    District 11

  • Dave Crandall - Trib Profile
  • Ted H. Heap - Trib Profile

  • District 12

  • Mark Cluff (Incumbent) - LWV Questions, Trib Profile
  • Carol A. Murphy - UTPS Questionnaire, LWV Questions, Trib Profile

  • Utah Moms Care

    District 13

  • Kyle Bateman - UTPS Questionnaire, Trib Profile
  • C. Mark Openshaw - Trib Profile

  • Utah Education Issues

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008

    State School Board Election Review

    Readers of this blog will remember that it was with great fervor that I attempted to create some level of awareness of the importance of the School Board elections. With just one week to go until election day, I'd like to bring it to your attention one more time. I'll begin by reminding you about what's already been said.

    On May 18th I talked about the process for selecting State School Board members. The process began early in May at the Governor's office with what was nearly a closed-door meeting, but thanks to concerned citizens who showed up to attend, the meeting was opened as it should have been to begin with. I talked about the process and how it's changed over time. I'm now convinced it needs to be changed again.

    With all of the to do about the meetings of the State School Board Nominating Committee being kept open to the public, I got to wondering why anyone would event want to serve on the State Board. On May 26th I outlined the important responsibilities that Board Members have and I thought about the ramifications of someone opposed to any public school system or disenfranchised with ours being able to undermine it from within by getting elected. If you're wondering why your vote matters as election day approaches, read this post.

    After suggesting that a State School Board candidate might have ill-intent, a reader directed me toward some interesting information on the state elections office website showing that infiltration had already occurred! The old adage "follow the money" was hitting me square in the jaw and I couldn't ignore it. On May 28th I outlined the large donations made by voucher pushers Parents for Choice in Education. It was quite apparent that one board member had already been bought in the 2006 race. If it could happen once could it happen again?

    I thought I'd do well to further explore the question, "Do school board candidates have hidden agendas?" There seemed to be quite a few candidates that had filed and were being interviewed that had ties to vouchers. If you're curious about which ones, read or re-read this post. On May 31st I talked about all of the candidates who have obvious ties to Parents for Choice in Education or had voiced a public position in favor of vouchers.

    It didn't take long to discover that the School Board election process failed us, but it was no surprise to many of us. On June 2nd, the nominating committee votes were in and the results showed that they had eliminated two incumbents and ranked another in third place. How is it that we have a process where ELECTED officials don't even have the opportunity to be re-elected? If the people voted them into office shouldn't it be the people who essentially vote them out? The results also showed how the business members of the committee voted together to get their way. The vote was stacked and in one instance (District 7) two business members didn't even bother to cast their last vote, despite agreed upon rules.

    On June 6th, just four short days later, the Governor finished the job by summarily picking the top two candidates as put forth by the Nominating Committee. Why our Governor was even involved in the process at that point was a mystery to me. It was supposed to be his job to make sure that the two most qualified and capable candidates were put on the ballot. That didn't happen as yet another incumbent (Theresa Theuer) was axed and a capable and well qualified candidate (A. LeGrand Richards) was cut.

    Since then I've turned my focus elsewhere, but with the election right upon us it's important to bring this up again. We'll have to live with the decisions we make and in some cases it will be a matter of choosing the lesser of the two, if you know what I mean. We need to make sure that this process is changed in the future. The decision should be put back in your hands! The elections need to remain non-partisan. We can't leave these important decisions up to committees and governors.

    Stay tuned for part two tomorrow. I'll make sure you get the information you need on the remaining two State School Board candidates in each district so that you can make informed decisions.

    Sunday, October 19, 2008

    Attorney General's Race Fires Up Over Vouchers and Ethics Reform

    Change is afoot.  Possibly.  Two-term Republican incumbent, Mark Shurtleff, is getting a run for his money (so to speak) from Democratic challenger, Jean Welch Hill.  The two recently debated some of the hottest topics in Utah politics, including the ubiquitous push for ethics reform and the equally charged voucher dialogue.

     Click here to read the article:  http://www.sltrib.com/utahpolitics/ci_10708500

     First, Vouchers or No Vouchers

    While vouchers haven't been headlining local news lately, heated dialog and feelings on both sides of the issue continue.  While Republican leaders claim the bill died on the day it was soundly defeated by public vote, speculation exists that there will indeed be another run.

     Ms. Welch insists that Utahns need an AG that protects public education rather than one who supports dismantling it.  Moreover, she says that as the current AG, Mr. Shurtleff, provided "legal and moral support" to vouchers from his office and blocked her efforts to put the kibosh on it.  Mr. Shurtleff denies that he has ever publicly supported vouchers or misused his influential position.  Questions remain and the debate, statewide, and between these two candidates, continues.

     As the dialog goes on, I come full circle to the cadre of questions I had during the referendum contest.  One in particular speaks both to the soundness of vouchers and to transparency about the end goal.  Had the referendum passed, the first round of proposed voucher funding wouldn't really make it possible for most families to attend a private school, based purely on the gap between the scaled voucher amounts and the actual cost of tuition.  

    If families aren't immediately benefiting from a voucher program, then what is the practical purpose and who is benefiting?  Would the voucher bill have been a "baby step" toward more voucher funding and more "choice"?  Everyone wins, right?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Another possibility is that it is indeed intended as a baby step, but one towards an undisclosed endgame: a largely, if not completely, privatized education system.  Sit with that one for awhile....I'll probably come back to it soon.

     And Then There's the Question of Ethics

     Ah, yes, ethics reform.  Legislators and other individuals vying for public office (and your trust) have had their halos knocked askew by recent ethics complaints and probes.  Read a recent article here: http://www.sltrib.com/utahpolitics/ci_10711007 , and also look for more news regarding the Mark Walker plea deal.  You could also look over this formal request from Phil Riesen's attorney's supporting his right to release the Greg Hughes complaint draft, and other relevant documentation, to the media: http://media.bonnint.net/slc/722/72209/7220928.pdf.

     Both Attorney General candidates seem to agree that ethics in government is important, although it has not been a focal point for reform during Mr. Shurtleff's tenure.  Ms. Welch believes that the AG should lead the charge in changing "business as usual" ethics on Capitol Hill.  She just doesn't see the wisdom in having legislators police themselves and would call for an independent ethics commission to provide objectivity and obviously much-needed oversight.  Oh yeah, and a ban on gifts to elected officials could also be coming to a legislature near you.

     Yes, change is afoot.  Possibly.

    Thursday, October 9, 2008

    Pledge for Ethics Reform

    Just two weeks ago, the coalition of Utahns for Public Schools released their best effort to bring ethics reform to the front and center for the next legislative session in the form of a pledge that legislators were invited to sign if they agreed with the actions that are being called for. A mix of incumbent legislators (17) and candidates (48) have already signed the pledge. The effort is bipartisan in nature with 22 Republicans and 42 Democrats on board with the five points of ethics reform that pertain to campaign financing. They are:
    1. Require full disclosure of any and all gifts and meals, (not including those provided to the entire legislative body), by both the recipient legislator and the provider of the gift/meal when that provider is a registered lobbyist, PAC, or acting on behalf of a company or corporation.
    2. Prohibit legislators or campaign committees from using campaign contributions for anything other than “legitimate” (i.e.: directly related to their campaign for election to public office) campaign expenditures, or for the execution of duties directly related to their public office.

    3. Require that unexpended campaign funds, upon defeat or retirement from the office in which the legislator served while generating the funds, be donated to a registered public charity or political party, or transferred to the School Trust Land Permanent Fund.

    4. Establish appropriate sanctions for legislators and others who fail to comply with the requirements listed above.

    5. Encourage transparency by providing sanctions for candidates, legislators, lobbyists, PACs, PICs and corporations who fail to file timely and accurate reports.
    I'm sure it's no mistake that the campaign was launched less than two months before election day. Incumbents and candidates who sign now will benefit since it certainly makes for a strategic campaign move. However, the true test will come when a bill comes before them in the 2009 legislative session concerning campaign finance reform. If they support it then they will be true to their pledge. If not, hopefully we'll take note and hold them to their word. You can see the full list of those who have signed at the Utahns for Public Schools Policy Center.

    Unfortunately the UTPS pledge has been stripped down to only include ethics reform related to campaign finances and contributions, a noteworthy and necessary undertaking. But, in August I suggested that what we really need is an ethics commission. This ethics problem is big enough that legislators are already drafting up an ethics reform bill for consideration in the 2009 session, however, they aren't even hoping for the formation of a commission. It may take some time, but we need to keep talking about it. The efforts by UTPS are a great start and hopefully it will make a difference, but it's still not enough!

    Yes, Utahns for Public Schools has certainly given us the start we need. We're also getting a big shove by the likes of several unprecedented ethics complaints this year. A big "thank you" goes out to people like Susan Lawrence who are willing to speak up (despite the untimely politicization of it). I'm proud of her for writing a letter "To Whom it May Concern". It had a different effect than she intended, but I hope in the end it will bring to pass much needed change in a system that more closely resembles the mob than a body of elected officials whose actions should be beyond reproach!

    Monday, October 6, 2008

    "Pay to play" or just "business as usual"?

    Former Representative Susan Lawrence recently illustrated a good example of why lawmakers should take reform seriously in the next session. She wrote a letter detailing alleged unethical behavior by Greg Hughes that occurred nearly two years prior. The complaint was leaked by Representative Riesen who claims that the public had a right to know about it. I agree, despite the spotlight this is going to put on Lawrence who says that she is saddened by the premature release of the information.

    After reading the complaint I began to wonder, if Susan Lawrence was confronted with a deal to trade votes for cash, how many others were approached with the same deal? How many of them might have taken them up on it and how many turned them down like Lawrence did? According to a footnote in the complaint:

    Corroborating these allegations respecting the attempted bribe of former Representative Lawrence, complainants are aware that another legislator, within the same time frame, also was offered equivalent campaign contribution assistance in exchange for a "yes" vote on the anticipated voucher bill. This legislator, like Lawrence, declined the bribe. We have not included this allegation in the complaint because, according to present information, the person making the bribe was not a legislator.
    I recently received information that Representative Paul Ray will possibly be testifying this week in the ethics hearings. He has spoken to others about a bribe that he received and those who have heard him talk about it say that he was offered $100,000 if he would change his vote on the voucher bill from nay to yea. He also reported the attempted bribe to the FBI. Why then, I wonder, if he was comfortable in making an official report to the FBI did he not report it as an ethics violation to his colleagues? Is it because he knew he wouldn't get anywhere by ruffling feathers and complaining about something that happens all the time? Is it because he would lose "all influence" in the House, a promise reportedly made by Hughes to other people who have tried to report abuses by those in power?

    I was curious to see if I could find a contribution by a voucher-tied donor so I started looking at 2006 campaign contributions. I wasn't able to find anything that came close to $50,000 or $100,000, but I did find the same trend that I found when I looked at the contributions to school board members in 2006. I thought that it was worth showing how not only voucher PACs like Parents for Choice in Education donated large sums of money, but other sources that could be tied to possible bribes. There is no proof as to whether or not the money came with strings attached, but at the very least I believe it demonstrates how it's common place for money to be influential in a campaign.

    When I was searching for the smoking gun I looked at the contributions to every candidate that voted in favor of HB148. I looked at the donors that might be tied to Greg Hughes or another known voucher-pushing-lawmaker. I included contributions made by Parents for Choice in Education since the voucher vote was at the crux of the matter, as well as contributions from Stephen Urquhart who was the sponsor of HB147. Due to the ability of funds to be filtered through the party I also included the contributions made by two Republican Party PACs. When I didn't find a whole lot in terms of people who had the opportunity to vote on the voucher bill, I turned my efforts to candidates who ran in 2006 but lost to their opponents. That's when the money painted a much different picture. The only other candidate that appeared to have the same pattern was that of Gage Froerer who won his bid for candidacy. All the other candidates listed below him in the table lost their bids. And what about contributions from the same voucher-tied donors for Lawrence and Ray? Well, they didn't get any. That raises some questions as to why not. Is it because they refused to change their vote?

    Lastly, when we talk about campaign ethics we have to think about the contributions that might have been made, but not reported. Surely, if someone is willing to unethically take cash for a vote they might also be willing to "forget" to report said cash. Could it be that the trading of cash for votes is so common place in our current system that people think nothing of it? It happens all the time, right? We'll need someone with subpoena power to ask the hard questions if we really want to get to the bottom of this.

    2006 Contributions to House Candidates in Tight Races


    Parents for Choice in Education PAC

    Utah Republican Party & Utah House Republican Election Committee

    Committee to Elect Stephen H Urquhart1

    Other Large Contributions with possible links to voucher votes

    Total Funds Raised

    Total Funds Raised by Opponent(s)

    Gage Froerer


    $14,629+** & $2,000+***




    $1,925 (Frandsen) $0 (Herbst)
    Jess Clifford


    $11,050.75** & $2,500***




    $24,346 (Gowans) $1,882 (Garrard)

    Denna Detton Ely
    $8,255+** & $4,500+***
    $24,957 (Duckworth) $400 (Froehle) $190 (Roose)
    Thomas Wright
    $2,471+** & $3,500+***

    $42,494 (McGee)

    Phillip M. Conder
    $2,281+** & 2,500***
    $16,833 (Fisher)
    Sandy Thackeray
    $7,968.89** & $2,000***

    $47,625 (Moss)

    Duane Millard
    $3,384.92+** & $2,000***

    $27,205 (Hemingway)

    Robyn Bagley
    $6,022** & $2,000***

    $38,313 (Morgan)

    + Multiple Contributions by the same PAC were added together.
    ** Contributions made by the Utah Republican Party
    *** Contributions made by the Utah House Republican Election Committee
    1 Contributions were listed from either "Stephen Urquhart" or "Committee to Elect Stephen H. Urquhart" or "Commitee [sic] to Elect Stephen H. Urquhart"
    2 Committee to Elect Howard Stephenson
    3 Salt Lake County Republican Party

    Thursday, September 18, 2008

    Transparency in Campaign Financing: The Windows Need a Lot of Cleaning

    CampaignDisclosure.Org just released their 2008 rankings for nationwide state campaign financing disclosure. If you are not familiar with this group, take some time to visit their website at http://www.campaigndisclosure.org/.

    Their purpose is to "bring greater transparency and accountability to money in state politics" and they give each state a grade for overall performance in four categories: campaign disclosure laws, electronic filing programs, public access to campaign finance data, and disclosure web site usability.

    If you look at the rankings, 10 states failed the test (literally received an "F"), and 40 states are considered to have passed. Utah comes in at the bottom of the passing states with a solid D-. The good news is, that's an improvement over the F's we've received in the past.

    Improvements, But Come On...

    The Deseret News covered the release of this report (http://deseretnews.com/article/1,5143,70025960.00.html) and gives a view of both the problems we still have with campaign finance transparency as well as the progress being made toward electronic filing requirements for candidates and a user-friendly database for the public.

    Believe me, I'm all for appreciating improvement and success along the way, but please, a D-??? The grade Utah recieved is not just an indictment of the process and tools involved; I believe it is a clear indictment of our campaign financing laws, or relative lack thereof. In a state that talks a lot about values, morals, and ethics, our campaign financing laws (and the resulting questionable campaign financing ethics?) are some of the worst in the nation...almost to the point of being egregiously non-existent.

    We Notice, We Care, We Want Reform!

    In a January, 2007 report, KSL revealed that "an exclusive poll by Survey USA for Eyewitness News asked Utahns to ascribe a level of importance, on a scale of one to ten, of certain issues. Nearly a third gave campaign finance reform an 8, 9, or 10, ranking it as very important. Those in favor of campaign finance reform say special interests have too much influence, while those opposed say access to public officials should not be unfairly restricted." (http://www.ksl.com/?sid=847824&nid=148).

    Just yesterday, a coalition of concerned groups launched an official campaign regarding government ethics reform. They are calling on the legislature to do its own house cleaning by addressing this very issue. Too many legislators, and the special interest groups who court them, are benefitting far too much from the current state of affairs. See the story at http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=4288838, and take a look at the pledge to address reform that UTPS is asking legislators and legislative candidates to sign at http://www.utahnsforpublicschools.org/policycenter/good-government.php.

    It's an age-old political dilemma: how does the common man compete with money and power? How do we hold our elected officials accountable for things we cannot see, track, and evaluate? I'm on the side of the little people who simply ask for honest disclosure and representation. We need to do some house cleaning, window cleaning, a good old scrub down from top to bottom. Transparency and ethics in government is achievable and we cannot let Utah fail this test year after year!

    Monday, September 15, 2008

    Special-needs students, teachers and taxpayers get the shaft

    Many people were recently affected by the closure of Woodland Hills (Utah Southvalley Community School at Woodland Hills or USC as they've been known for just over a year), but few were surprised. That's because payroll checks began to bounce earlier in the summer and teachers contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune reported that USC "churned through at least 50 employees." That's a big number and I thought that it must be an exaggeration until I read the fifty plus angry comments appended to The Tribune article. Now I'm beginning to understand the truth of the matter.

    There are a lot of losers in this closure (the biggest loser being Bob Jones), but more importantly the special-needs students that counted on a place to learn and the teachers who really cared about the students and stuck around despite all the telltale signs that the school was going under. That being said, the emphasis that I'm obviously taking on the Bob Jones scam is concerning the taxpayers. It's a position we can all relate to because all of us are taxpayers.

    USC would have received public funding in the form of tuition tax credits this year but besides having closed, they also failed to file their application by the May 1 deadline. The program that gives public money to private schools is called the Special Need Carson Smith Scholarship and the school had participated in years past. In fact, the school received $160,477 last year, the third-largest amount of the 40 plus participating schools.

    Funding for the program began in 2005 when it was signed into law by Governor Huntsman and further expanded in 2006. There is very little accountability for receiving such a large amount of our money. There are only 15 provisions for a school to adhere to during the application process and 11 of them are preceded by the following statement.

    "No documentation is required in the application relative to this provision."

    The 15th provision simply recaps the documentation that is needed which is simply 1) a Tuition and Fee Schedule, 2) a copy of the most recent Public Health Inspection Report, 3) a copy of the most recent State Fire Marshall Inspection Report and if the school stores, prepares or serves meals to students, 4) a copy of a current and satisfactory Safety and Sanitation Report from the Department of Health. So little accountability! No need to report where the money is spent and on whom? Do we have any idea of the money that USC received was spent on the students, or did they just plan to use it to fund a trip to Japan for the football team? I wonder how many special-needs students were planning on going?

    I must make mention again of the huge loss for these students and their families. It is very difficult to find good places for these students where their needs will be met, however, many of them have now come back to public schools where their Special Education needs, by law, must be provided. Public schools try very hard to meet those needs despite funding shortfalls and burdensome federal regulations. In a private school parents are not provided any guarantees that the school will meet the Special Education needs of their child. The federal laws do not apply and parents take a chance when they put their special-needs children in private schools.

    Ironically, the only thing left of the USC school website is a notice demanding that lunch balances are paid and equipment returned and a picture of the guy responsible for the demise of the school. Can we demand that our public funds be returned or will the program be expanded yet again in 2008?

    Monday, September 8, 2008

    School Funding, Class Size, and the Earth's Rotational Velocity

    Ah, money. It makes the world go ‘round. Or, at least it keeps it from winding down and coming to a screeching halt, especially if you view it through the organizational behavior lens of Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory. But, what does this have to do with school funding and class size, you ask? Well, potentially a lot if you take a look at how this theory addresses job satisfaction and motivation, and apply it to the ongoing challenges our Utah teachers face each year.

    What Does Hygiene Have to do with Motivation?

    If you are new to Herzberg, let me give you a quick primer on his work. Frederick Herzberg, a well-respected psychologist who eventually graced the halls of our own U of U as a professor of management, is known for his widely-applied Motivation-Hygiene Theory. In business and academic circles, his theory has the reputation for being able to nicely account for two aspects of motivation: satisfaction and dissatisfaction. For the purpose of looking at school funding and class size, I'll focus in this post on dissatisfaction.

    Dissatisfaction is primarily the result of hygiene factors, which are sometimes also referred to as "maintenance" factors. Either way, these elements are simply the basic building blocks of an acceptable working condition. These particular factors have little effect on long-term satisfaction—they merely prevent dissatisfaction. The point is, Herzberg found that these factors must be met and sustained in a work environment before an employee can move on to real levels of work satisfaction, enjoyment, and performance.

    Keeping Dissatisfaction at Bay or Sway

    According to Herzberg and the results of his well-documented research, here are the factors that, if missing or inadequate, can lead to job dissatisfaction:

    Pay and Benefits
    Company Policy and Administration
    Relationships with Co-workers
    Physical Environment
    Job Security

    With regard to education, this list begs the very questions we ask ourselves during each legislative session. Even if we focus on just education funding and class size, this theory suggests imperative questions for which I want better legislative answers.

    Last.....and First: Funding and Class Size

    Over the past several years, I've been watching for legislative changes that will have real impact on local school funding and class size challenges. I'm still watching....and waiting. While appropriations for education have increased somewhat, Utah is still dead last in the nation for per pupil funding. Let me repeat that. We spend less on each of our students than every other state in the nation. In the 2006 fiscal year, Utah spent $5,437 per student. The highest-ranked state, New York, spent $14,884 per student, and the national average was $9,138. Even if we overlook the highest-ranking state, we are still only spending 60% of the national average on our students. To put it another way, we are not even close to the second-to-last state, Idaho, which spends $6,440 per student...a $1000 gap. In short, we are way behind.

    To be fair, after nearly ten years of education funding decline, "the Legislature has increased state funding effort for public education in the most recent two state budgets", according to the Utah Foundation. It's the relative size of those increases that I wonder about...and the lingering, and sometimes widening, gap between Utah's education funding compared with the rest of the nation.

    Now let's juxtaposition our per pupil spending numbers against Utah's class size. We have, as you might have guessed, the largest class sizes in the nation. Our student-to-teacher ratio is 22.6 which adds up to about seven more students per teacher than the national average. Not only at an intuitive level would this appear to be a problem, but most education experts agree that larger class size does directly translate into many challenges—both for the students and the teachers. Challenges ranging from lack of focus and on-task work, discipline problems, and only reaching superficial levels of instruction are routinely observed in larger class sizes.

    Now, Back to Hygiene

    Bringing us back full circle to the rotational velocity of the earth and Herzberg's hygiene factors, let's take a look at the theory again armed with the numbers above. Does money really make the world go 'round? It sure does help.

    When we consider what it takes to attract and retain the best teachers, Herzberg's model is eye-opening. While it seems to state the obvious, it emphasizes that offering the basic building blocks of an acceptable work environment is only a starting point. With regard to education, I can see at least three factors on the list that are impacted by low funding and large class sizes: Pay/Benefits, Work Environment, and Status (and perhaps Company Policy and Administration). That's nearly half of the list and the odds of dissatisfaction, I think, speak for itself. In fact, years of real-world observation and motivation research indicates that all of the hygiene factors must continually be met in order to prevent dissatisfaction.

    In my experience, Utahns collectively speak about education with fervent support and generally agree that education is one of the state's highest-held values. However, my experience also says "follow the money" to find the real, rather than stated, values. We see values translated into public policy every year and for a state that claims to value education, the policy...and the money...is lagging behind. Let's do what it takes to retain the best teachers by meeting their basic needs, supporting them with policy, and then allowing them to teach with passion.

    Kudos to legislators who have supported increased appropriations for public education....let's just see more of it.

    Thursday, September 4, 2008

    Florida School Voucher Update - Amendment 9 thrown out!

    Good news for residents of Florida today! The Florida Supreme Court threw out amendment 9, which combined a private school voucher program with Patrick Byrn's so-called "65% Solution" proposal. The intent of the amendment was to reverse the Florida Supreme Court decision that threw out a private school voucher proposal as unconstitutional.

    Even though this amendment has been defeated for now, have no doubt that Patrick Byrne will be pushing his agenda somewhere soon again. Maybe even in Florida since this isn't the first time he has peddled his ideas there. I found a 2006 article from TampaBay.com that documents his previous try and gives precious insight into his tactics and flawed point-of-view. The article starts out, "The 43-year-old man behind the education spending plan storming the nation is crashed out on a couch in the Florida Capitol," and continues with the following highlights.

    "I don't think [the 65 percent plan] really had any legs to start out with," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who thinks the plan is dead in the upper chamber.

    But with the most important 21/2 weeks remaining in the legislative session, it's too early to predict exactly how it will play out.

    Byrne admits little knowledge of Florida politics. His entry into the state's education debate started a year and a half ago in his Salt Lake City apartment.

    A mutual friend introduced Byrne to Tim Mooney, an Arizona Republican political consultant. For about a year, Mooney had been laying the groundwork for the 65 percent campaign.

    Byrne is surprised at how quickly it's taken off. "I never had any idea politics was so easy," he said.

    You'd think he'd be back on that couch, crashed out and full of humble pie, but I'm not done keeping an eye on him, just in case he has a hollow leg. Afterall, let's not forget what Byrne said after the sound defeat of vouchers in Utah. He said he was going to push vouchers "on African-American churches in South Carolina". He WILL take these ideas anywhere and everywhere he thinks he can sell them.

    Thursday, August 28, 2008

    Patrick Byrne Sightings: What is he up to now?

    I hesitate to write about Patrick Byrne anymore. For those who know him you understand what I mean. These days I get him confused with Super Dell; he embarrasses himself every time he opens his mouth. But, it's for those who don't know the name "Byrne" and what he's been trying to do for the last several years that I write. First a brief reminder.

    Avid readers of Accountability will remember Patrick Byrne's involvement in last year's voucher campaign. He donated nearly $4 million to PCE (Parent's for Choice in Education) in hopes that a law allowing public funding of private schools would not be overturned by a Referendum. When the voices of the people were heard and the law was stricken, he insulted Utahns and worsened his already-poisonous reputation by making awful statements about high school dropouts (they should be "burned"), about Utah voters (they "failed the state IQ test"), about Utah parents (they "don't care enough about their children" ) and about the people debating him (they are "bigots"). The contempt he showed for his fellow Utahns on live television on Election Night illustrated why people say what they say about him. And now, allow me to say a bit more about him.

    In March, 2005 Byrne co-founded an organization called First Class Education. The new group's goal was to enact laws in all 50 States that would mandate 65% of all funds be spent "in the classroom." The idea received a lot of criticism because of its arbitrariness:

    • Why choose 65%? Why not 60%? Why not 80%? There's no evidence that spending any particular percentage on instructional expenses actually improves education.

    • Why do some expenses, like football uniforms, count as classroom or "instructional" expenses, while others, such as school libraries and the cost of bussing students to the school, do not?
    For all the silliness of the proposal and its unfounded claims, it actually caught on in some areas. I'm sure this was partly because of the simplicity of the idea and partly because of the money that Byrne was injecting into the campaign in the form of commercials and propaganda starting in 10 States. Texas and Georgia fell for it, unfortunately, and both states report that it is too early to assess their programs. Other states have grasped onto the idea but made it a goal, not a requirement.

    A look at the First Class Education website suggests that the 65% "solution" has lost steam. There are only three "active" states with their own webpages (Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri). Colorado voters defeated a 65 percent proposal in 2006 , the same year sponsors abandoned petition drives in Arizona, Oregon and Washington state. The Oklahoma Supreme Court threw a 65 percent proposal off the ballot in 2007, about the same time that private school vouchers were being defeated in Utah. Maybe it's time for them to shut down the site, you say? I would think so, too, but there's a new development. Byrne's 65% plan has actually found its way onto the ballot in Florida in the form of Amendment 9. This time it's tied to--are you ready for this?--VOUCHERS. That brings me to another reason for this post.

    While First Class Education has not been very successful, Byrne has also aligned himself with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, one of the nation's main voucher advocacy groups. He has sat on the board since 2006 and was recently named co-chair. Gordon St. Angelo, President and CEO of the Friedman Foundation, hopes that "with Patrick on board" the number of voucher programs in the country will "skyrocket." I have no doubt Byrne will attempt his style of "helping" by resorting to the kinds of political tactics used by First Class Education. A memo circulated among lawmakers regarding the "political benefits" of the 65 percent solution reveals the real reason for the proposal. Allow me to quote just a few of the "benefits." Keep in mind that Byrne cares about our children more than we do.
    "The Political Benefits of 1st Class Education
    1. Splitting of the Education Union. The 1st Class Education proposal naturally puts administrators and teachers at odds with one another with monies flowing from the former to the latter with its passage. Because most state education unions represent both administrators and teachers, the proposal will create tremendous tension within the organization. Every time the education establishment attacks this proposal, it hurts its standing with the public and the majority of its membership. Every day and every dollar the education establishment uses to defeat this proposal is a day and a dollar they cannot spend on other political activities.

    2. Direct Fix for Public Education. ...large segments of the voting public - especially suburban, affluent women voters - view these ideas as an abandonment of public education. Women in particular want public education fixed, not replaced. Once additional fixing and funding of public education can be achieved via the 1st Class Education proposal, targeted segments of voters may be more greatly predisposed to supporting voucher and charter school proposals, as Republicans address the voting public with greater credibility on public education issues"

    3. Establishes the Debate on Taxes and Government Spending. By highlighting the inefficiencies of education spending, far and away the biggest budgetary item in every state, the 1st Class Education initiative highlights the likely inefficiencies in all areas of state government. That's the percentage the Department of Motor Vehicles spends on administration versus direct service to the public?

    4. Allows the Use of Unlimited Non-Personal Money for Political Positioning Advantages. The aforementioned benefits can be achieved with funding in any amount and from any source. In the era of campaign finance limitation on candidates, PACs and parties, galvanizing an electorate via the initiative process is a tremendous opportunity.

    5. It Wins! As with initiatives proposing tax limits, term limits and the definition of marriage, ballot success for the 1st Class Education proposal is exceedingly likely. Moreover, the proposal can galvanize public political discussion, becoming a natural litmus test for candidates with the electorate its intuitive simplicity establishes either a beneficiary relationship with the voters or a noted disconnect based on the candidates support or opposition to the proposal."

    Does any of this sound familiar? Did you notice any of these things going on during the Utah voucher campaign?

    As you can clearly see, Byrne doesn't really care about your children or their education. (Not a bit surprised, I'm sure.) What he really wants is to 1) cause contention between teachers and administrators, a move, no doubt, that does an awful lot to help my children learn better in the classroom, 2) help us suburban, affluent women voters to see the light in terms of public education, 3) directly attack not just education, but the government as a whole, 4) get around election and campaign rules, and finally 5) insult us yet again. After all, we're stupid, and this will just pass right out, what with all the other things on the ballot that we care more about anyway.

    We've proven already that these tactics don't work on us, yet Byrne and his friends are back at it in Florida. This goes to show that we can't let our guard down on these issues. (Hence the update on the whereabouts of Byrne.) Maybe this article will be useful to the people of Florida, who might see a little bit of Byrne this election season. They can be on the lookout for his political tactics and ready to record the outrageous comments he's likely to make. Does Florida have a Super Dell?

    Thursday, August 7, 2008

    Legislative Ethics Process - Time to reform now?

    I became curious about the ethics process recently, in light of an ethics complaint (and talk of another) that was brought before the Legislative Ethics Committee and then subsequently dropped. I had read that complaints are rare and had only happened three time previously in the last 22 years. In fact, the last time it happened was ten years ago in 1998. I was surprised to read this, considering that the public is always demanding ethics reform. More to the point, in January of this year the Salt Lake Tribune released a poll that asked whether an ethics commission should be formed. Seventy-two percent of residents polled said that they were in favor of such a proposal and the support came from both sides, Republican and Democrat.

    What is the process now?

    Utah has an ethics committee which is made up of state Legislators who review complaints brought before them by fellow Legislators. The public are not allowed to bring forth complaints. Both the senate and the house have their own respective ethics committees which look at ethical violations of members only after receiving a written complaint by a fellow legislator with the name and address of at least three legislators (or three Senators if the complaint is against a Senator), along with the nature of the alleged violation with supporting documentation attached. The detailed version of what I've just described can be found in Joint Rules of Utah Legislature, specifically JR 6 Chapters 1-5, as well as in House Rules of the Utah Legislature, specifically HR-38 Lobbyist Ethics and Enforcement.

    The committees are made up of the chair and three additional members appointed by the President of the Senate for Senate Ethics Committee or the Speaker of the House of Representatives for House Ethics Committee as well as the cochair and three additional members appointed by the Senate/House minority leaders. The bipartisan committee serves a two year term.

    What are the problems?

    Some problems with the committee include vague rules and no independence or objectivity to address the merits of an ethics complaint. The entire process is tainted by a lack of independence. Fear is also a primary demotivator. Fear of retribution (as was the likely motive for the Mascaro complaint -which ended up being dropped- since he was one of five legislators that filed the complaint against Walker) and fear that they might offend an ally, losing a deciding vote next time they try to get a bill passed. Is it any wonder that to date only 4 complaints have come forth in 22 years?

    Why hasn't the process been changed?

    There was recently a call for change coming from within in the form of HB 130 and it proposed that a State Ethics Commission be formed. Utah is still only one of eleven states who have not formed an ethics commission. Other states have not only formed an ethics commission but continue to have one or more ethics committees. You can look at a brief comparison of commissions and committees on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

    Despite agreement from Republicans and Democrats that HB 130 was needed, the bill failed to make it out of the House Rules Committee. The responsibility of changing the process comes from the very group that benefits from not having it change and keeping it the way it is. If the process changes then Legislators may actually be held accountable whereas the process now holds them blameless, so why should they change it? Legislators that were in favor of HB 130 were frustrated when it wasn't even put out there for public comment and noted that it is increased public support that is needed in order for this change to occur. I don't think a single one of us public people are questioning the need for such a bill. We're all in support of change when it comes to ethics in our government and polls such as the one mentioned at the beginning of this post put emphasis on it. What more shall we do, I wonder? Maybe the representatives serving on the 2008 House Rules Committee have some answers?

    Monday, July 14, 2008

    Our Education Fund "bucket" has a couple of leaks

    There has been a lot more discussion (still not enough) about class size issues in Utah. The biggest hurdle that class-size reduction faces seems to be the funding that it would take to achieve it. According to a January 2007 USOE (Utah State Office of Education) estimate, a reduction of just one student in the pupil-teacher ratio for K-6 would cost about $37.5 million in additional teachers' salaries, not to mention the $293 million in facilities.

    Whoa, right!? If that seems like a lot of money to come up with, you're right, it is! And it's also just about the amount of money leaking out of the Education Fund and in to two other "buckets" of money that up until the mid 1990's were completely separate. Let me explain. Prior to 1996, the three major buckets of funding included:

    • Education Fund (formerly known as the Uniform School Fund) - This money came primarily from state income taxes, as well as corporate taxes and a small amount of property taxes. Income tax revenue, by constitutional mandate, could ONLY be used for public K-12 education.
    • General Fund - This money came from state sales tax revenue which covered most state programs, including higher education, human services, health, corrections, and general government.
    • Transportation Fund - This money came primarily from motor fuel taxes, and provided for UDOT and the Utah Highway Patrol.

    As I mentioned, these funds WERE completely separate due to their separate revenue streams so the funds allocated to K-12 education were protected. They had to go to our public schools and could not be diverted to other projects or used to replace other funding. The threat of funds being used for roads and prisons was non-existent during the budget process because state income tax revenue was not available for such projects. It HAD to go to K-12 education.

    In 1996 everything changed. New legislation, in the form of a constitutional amendment, allowed income tax revenues to be used for higher education as well as our K-12 schools. Most people don't even know about this subtle move. What does it matter if we fund a program from one budget or another? It likely seemed reasonable at the time since, after all, the money was still going for education. Right? Perhaps the intentions were not ill conceived, but ever since the two streams were comingled, public education has had to compete with other state programs for resources. This competition for funds begins when General Fund appropriations for higher education do not cover the anticipated costs so the Utah Legislature supplements General Fund revenues by diverting Education Fund revenues to higher ed. It's all still considered the Education Budget, but our K-12 schools are the entities giving up a portion of their funding to pay for the change.

    The title of this post mentions a "couple of leaks". I've told you about one, but the problem gets worse. During the 2007 General Session, the Utah Legislature passed Second Substitute HB 314 and Substitute HB 383, which diverted a stream of sales tax revenues into the Transportation Fund. Remember the buckets? Which bucket does sales tax usually go in? That's right, it should have gone to the General Fund! Money that would have gone into General Fund programs was transferred into the Centennial Highway Fund, the Critical Highway Needs Fund, and other special Transportation Fund projects. These projects should have been funded by the Transportation Fund. Yet another merging of funding streams has just occurred. Nowadays it seems as if all taxes can be used for any pet project of the legislature.

    So what are the effects of these merges or "leaks" as I like to call them? Due to the bills most recently passed, this fiscal year will see $302 million of sales taxes diverted into Transportation Fund projects. This diversion isn't leaking directly from the Education Fund, it's leaking out of the General Fund because that's where legislators choose to go to make up the difference when the revenues from motor fuel taxes aren't able to cover inflationary needs for salaries or for construction cost hikes from the increased cost of asphalt, concrete and steel. But wait! If they leak money to the transportation fund, what about Higher Education? Remember what happens when Higher Education cannot be fully funded? Yep, the Education Fund is raided and leaks into the General Fund to meet those needs. Perhaps if the General Fund bucket hadn't been allowed to spill over into the Transportation Fund, we would have had the money for higher ed. without taking it from K-12 schools. Hence, the couple of leaks!

    As much money as is needed to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio by one was diverted to transportation projects in fiscal year 2007-2008. So those who are fighting for class size reduction see a choice being made of more asphalt and sound walls over smaller class sizes. Unfortunately, there are other revenue issues working against K-12 education funding. You can quickly see how this one example takes away a lot of money that could go to class-size reduction. I'll uncover a few more funding issues in upcoming posts.

    Sunday, June 22, 2008

    Give Up Your Rights or Vote on June 24th - You Decide!

    When it comes to our rights in America there is nothing like the power of voting to make your voice heard. Sure, we have free speech, the right to bare arms, etc. but the real power is given when WE say who should have the power. When you choose not to vote, to sit by and see how things work out, to let others decide for you by thinking that your one vote won't make the difference - that's when you've given up one of your greatest American rights. The right to vote! Even today there are people dying for the right to determine their own destiny. Our own military sons and daughters are fighting to bring our brand of democracy to others. How can we sit home and not vote?

    It's with this thought in mind that I remind everyone that we have the opportunity to vote on Tuesday, June 24th. Depending on where you live there may be different ballot items. Depending on your party affiliation there may be races that you will or will not be able to weigh in on. But whatever the case may be, I urge you to get out and vote. Your vote could make the difference between somebody in power who believes in doing the best thing for education vs. somebody in power who is easily swayed, makes decisions for personal gain, political acceptance or party popularity.

    State Treasurer

    There are a couple of races that are of particular importance in my mind. One is a race that I've already talked about, but that I'd like to reiterate - that is the Republican primary race for State Treasurer - Richard Ellis vs Mark Walker. Only registered Republicans can weigh in on this race.
    If you're registered as "unaffiliated" this might be a reason (at least temporarily) to register Republican so that you can help decide this race. If you're a registered Democrat, you can't vote, but you can send this post to your Republican friends in hopes that they will make an informed decision. When it comes down to it this isn't really a fair race at all, because Richard Ellis is so much better qualified to fill the position! Let's take another quick look at the qualifications and also a few things that disqualify Mark Walker.

    Richard Ellis:

    • 22 years of public treasury experience (8 years as Deputy Treasurer)
    • Experience as Governor Walker and Governor Huntsman's Budget Director (3 years)
    • Finance Degree, MBA
    • Endorsement of current State Treasurer of 28 years, Edward T. Alter
    Mark Walker:
    • ZERO experience (no on-the-job experience or training. Don't let the Zion's Bank "credentials" fool you, he holds a sales position. Ellis clarifies this further on his blog and shows how little Walker knows about the job based on what Walker has put up on his website and what he has been mailing everyone. You'll have to read it to believe it, it's quite embarrassing for Walker.)
    • ZERO education in the field (no Finance Degree, no MBA - he has a BS in Political Science)
    • Endorsements of politically motivated bureaucrats
    I'll try to hold my tongue when it comes to his record as a legislator. He has the worst legislative committee attendance record and hasn't passed a single bill as a legislator. I didn't include that in the list above because I'm trying my best not to make this an attack. Attacks are hardly necessary when the experience alone is so overwhelming in favor of Richard Ellis. I'm baffled by the likes of Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and others in Republican leadership who say that Mark Walker is the man for the job. He'll make a good party puppet, perhaps?

    I'd love to see a debate between Walker and Ellis. Rod Decker of KUTV invited both men to his live "Take Two" program on Sunday at 10 a.m. Ellis accepted and Walker said he will be at church. I'm not one to mock a man's religious conviction, but somehow I doubt that's the real reason he doesn't want to be in a debate with Ellis. Walker is relying on the endorsements to pull him through, and the scary thing is that it might just work...if people don't make an informed vote on Tuesday!!

    What's at stake if Walker wins the election? A $1 billion Permanent School Fund, $25 billion of taxpayer money held in the Public Treasurer Investment fund on behalf of the state, counties, cities, school districts, etc., and a AAA bond rating that is very difficult to get in the first place.

    Jordan School District Boards of Education

    Another decision that will be important, especially when it comes to the future of some of our children, is the Jordan School Districts Board races. The Jordan School District split has been controversial in and of itself, but now you need to decide who is going to be in positions of power and who will look out for the best interests of your children. Again, due to predicted low voter turnout this race could be won by just a handful of people, so it's extremely important that you must do your homework and go vote!

    Some last minute insight into the Jordan East school board race to consider is in Precinct 3. Sixteen candidates have thrown their hat into the ring! There are many that would do a great job. However, therein lies the problem. With so many qualified candidates it would be easy for the vote to be split and a less competent candidate could come out the winner. I've already mentioned the possibility of "party puppets". What are the chances that Teresa Curtis (Speaker Greg Curtis' wife) becomes one of those if elected? This isn't a primary race. This is it. It's extremely important that you know everything about the person you vote for, especially their intentions and abilities in determining the future of the district split. There is talk about postponing the split through a special session in the legislature. With ongoing talks about dividing up assets between east and west, this will be no position for puppets. You'll need people in place able to make tough decisions based on the best interests of the children, and of the employees, if both districts are to be successful!

    Vote, vote, vote! You can see how important it is that you do so! I've highlighted just a couple of GREAT reasons. Feel free to add your own opinion by making a comment. Be quick about it, you only have a day or two before June 24th has come and gone and we'll have to live with the decisions that have been made. For better or for worse. Let's all hope for better!