Fundamental reform must precede increases in generally applicable taxes

Reymerswaele_Two_tax_collectorsSome Utah policymakers are proposing legislation this year that would increase generally applicable taxes on income and gasoline. Not surprisingly, these proposals have drawn the attention of the media and Utah pollsters, who have found that Utahns oppose raising income taxes for education.

Utahns’ hesitancy regarding tax increases is well founded. Government has a history of inefficiency (driven by a relative lack of systematic accountability for government-funded programs) and seemingly endless expansion (due to natural political forces). So it is very reasonable for Utahns to balk at the idea of giving more of their hard-earned money to government.

On the other hand, meaningful freedom requires limited government – or good government, in other words. And that has to be paid for with taxpayer dollars. Given the natural conflict between the freedom-based need for tax dollars and the reasonable impulse to be skeptical of tax increase proposals, how should Utahns and Utah policymakers evaluate such proposals?

One fundamental question (but certainly not the only question) to ask is: “Will this tax increase proposal bring fundamental, beneficial reform to government that serves the common good?” If a proposal to take more money from taxpayers cannot answer at least this question with a clear and convincing “yes,” then it is probably not a proposal worth considering further.

So take the proposal to raise individual income taxes by 20 percent (upping the rate from 5 percent to 6 percent). The money generated by this proposal (estimated to be $585 million in 2016) would go mostly toward providing bonuses to teachers based on performance, with the remainder being invested in digital learning.

Certainly, these reforms are steps in the right direction for public education. But are they truly fundamental and beneficial reforms that merit a tax increase? Read more

Our sympathies to Speaker Lockhart's family

We extend our condolences to Speaker Lockhart’s family. We are deeply saddened that her serious illness and sudden passing bring to a close her remarkable life of personal and public service. Our prayers on her behalf now become expressions of gratitude for Becky’s friendship and example of integrity and courage.

— Sutherland Institute

Sutherland commends Gov. Herbert for not calling Medicaid special session

Sutherland Institute commends Governor Herbert for his wise and prudent decision not to call a special session to consider his proposed Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion plan. The question of whether Utah should add a second, private-insurance tier to its Medicaid program for the sake of federal funding is a momentous one. This decision has significant implications and consequences for the most vulnerable Utahns – the single parents, disabled individuals, and children who would be left behind in the lower tier of traditional Medicaid coverage. Additionally, given the long-term fiscal implications of creating a new entitlement program such as Healthy Utah, this decision ought to be considered within a budget process that sheds light on whether future state funding for Healthy Utah could be better utilized if instead spent on essential roles of government such as higher education, transportation, and corrections.

Despite calls from some to short-circuit thoughtful consideration of the details and impacts of Healthy Utah because they believe the decision merits no further evaluation, Governor Herbert made the correct decision and should be commended for recognizing the importance of a thoughtful process for making sound public policy. Sutherland looks forward to continuing this important policy dialogue where it ought to be engaged: in a general session of the Utah Legislature.

Behind the Legislative Scorecard – Mero Moment, 4/1/14

sutherland file pictures 009This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

About 10 years ago, when Sutherland Institute made it a part of our mission to “constructively influence Utah’s decision makers,” we were very reluctant to create a legislative scorecard. For several years our thinking was that legislative scorecards tend to be more divisive – less constructive – than helpful. Several advocacy groups in Utah use these scorecards to demonstrate how aligned a state legislator is with whatever a particular group is advocating. At the time, we didn’t feel the need at Sutherland to become just one more “critic” of the Legislature.

That said, we were pressed increasingly by citizens to create a scorecard that would reflect the conservatism of the Legislature. Sutherland is Utah’s conservative voice, and the many requests for us to somehow measure the Legislature’s conservatism didn’t seem unreasonable. Still, and to this day, Sutherland Institute is sensitive to how these scorecards can be used by others for political and partisan purposes.

Two years ago we decided to try our hand at producing a scorecard that would measure the level of conservatism at the Legislature without encouraging its misuse by others. The 2014 Legislative Scorecard is our third iteration and we feel confident that we’ve accomplished our goal.

Of course, the Utah Legislature is a conservative body in a conservative state. And for that very reason, the term “conservative” is used broadly and indiscriminately. Evidently conservative can mean anything from a champion of government-generated economic development all the way to a libertarian. The Sutherland scorecard attempts subtly to help citizens understand that conservatism has specific meaning.

For the 2014 legislative session recently concluded, 784 bills were introduced at the Legislature. Sutherland tracked nearly 50 bills as a part of our regular work and we’ve isolated 17 Senate votes and 18 House votes for our latest scorecard. Our measurement is simple: Did a legislator vote the conservative way?

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Sutherland releases 2014 Legislative Scorecard and Lifetime Legislator Scores

Photo Credit: Scott Catron

Photo Credit: Scott Catron

SALT LAKE CITY – Sutherland Institute released today its 2014 Legislative Scorecard. Using 17 pieces of legislation considered during the 2014 legislative session for the Senate and 18 for the House (not all bills overlap between chambers), Sutherland produced an individual score for each legislator and an overall score for each body. In 2014, the Utah Senate scored 79 percent on average (79 percent in 2013 and 81 percent in 2012) while the Utah House came in at 75 percent (58 percent in 2013 and 75 percent in 2012).

Of note during this session was the wide bipartisan agreement on several pieces of transparency legislation. Additionally, the so-called “moratorium” on bills dealing with religious freedom and nondiscrimination laws contributed to a less controversial session.

The 2014 Legislative Scorecard can be found here.

2014 Senate highlights:

  • “High Five”
    • 100%     Margaret Dayton
    • 100%     Mark Madsen
    • 94%       Deidre Henderson
    • 94%       Stuart Reid
    • 93%       Scott Jenkins
  • “Low Five”
    • 50%       Jim Dabakis
    • 56%       Patricia Jones
    • 59%       Gene Davis
    • 59%       Karen Mayne
    • 64%       Luz Robles
  • 20 of 29 senators scored 75 percent or better

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On Point at the Capitol: advice from women in politics, 3/14/14

In this episode of On Point, “Holly on the Hill” blogger Holly Richardson interviews several Democratic and Republican state legislators about the highs and lows of the 2014 session and finds out how they got started in politics. The legislators, many of them retiring, also share advice for women considering entering politics.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mia3Lu11Q8Q&list=PLPoDVd2yIgAbwLAQIhDw2DcdXujeITFAA

Holly interviews:

Sen. Patricia Jones, D-District 4
Sen. Karen Mayne, D-District 5
Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-District 1
Rep. Dana Layton, R-District 60
Rep. Becky Edwards, R-District 20
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-District 24
Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-District 23

Watch here on YouTube!

Election solution may be a Pyrrhic victory – Mero Moment, 3/11/14

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. (Scroll down for podcast.)

CapitolnightAs the legislative version of the Count My Vote initiative is signed into law, we should reflect on its meaning. State Senator Curt Bramble did a remarkable job in countering the initiative by consuming its vital parts and making it a legislative solution rather than a special interest victory. Even though the end result is that Utah voters are now strapped with a dual electoral system that will only add more divisiveness to Utah politics, Bramble’s expert move temporarily frustrated political liberals and cut off their momentum at the knees.  The Legislature became the solution, not political elites.

But this legislative solution looks to be a Pyrrhic victory. In this new dual electoral system, people of principle will run inside the ongoing caucus/convention system and people of pragmatism will use the signature/primary system – and, depending on the most pressing issues of the time, people of principle in elected office might find the need to join the ranks of the pragmatists just to stay there.

The bottom line is that principle will lose ground to pragmatism – meaning limited government will lose ground to Big Government. It’s tough enough now for principled leaders of limited government in the Utah Legislature to stand against the tide of special interest demands and cultural shifts. It will soon be impossible.

Count My Vote makes Utah a worse place to live, work and raise a family. Providing an alternative path for liberals and moderates to get elected in the Republican Party means Utah changes forever. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times – freedom will lose permanent ground.

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Private lives and public policy

family beach sunsetA note to members of the Utah Senate and House of Representatives from Paul Mero, president of Sutherland Institute:

As I write this, I recognize I’m addressing a diverse audience. I recognize some legislators know me well, even personally. Other legislators don’t know me at all. I realize some legislators have high opinions of me and that other legislators have very low opinions of me.

Regardless of how well you know me or like me, we both have one thing in common: public policy. Creating public policy is what you do as legislators; and designing, shaping and influencing public policy is what my colleagues and I do at Sutherland Institute.

While I certainly look to be respected by legislators professionally – and I certainly want Sutherland Institute to be respected – I’ve never thought that my professional opinions would be considered more or less correct based on how well a legislator knows me personally. I believe a good idea is a good idea regardless of the messenger – although some messengers obviously can do the message harm.

To be more precise, I’ve never had the thought that if only a legislator really knew me personally, he or she would certainly know how serious, credible, passionate and thoughtful my opinions really are about the causes and issues I promote, let alone the correctness of my opinions.

My personal life and experiences are lessons to me, for sure. But I’ve never had the thought that my personal life and experiences make my professional public policy opinions any more or any less correct in the minds of policymakers. Read more

Testimony on SB 251 (Amendments to Medicaid and Health Care)

sutherland file pictures 008Testimony presented by Derek Monson, director of public policy, Sutherland Institute, on Feb. 27 before the Utah Senate Health and Human Services Committee regarding SB 251 – Amendments to Medicaid and Health Care:

Thank you Mr. Chair and members of the committee. I am Derek Monson with Sutherland Institute, and I am here to speak in opposition to SB 251. Thank you for giving me the chance to explain why.

At Sutherland we recognize the logic behind seeking to expand Utah’s Medicaid program per the vision of Obamacare. Utahns are paying taxes under Obamacare, so why not accept federal funding by expanding Medicaid in order to help Utahns in need, especially when the promise of that funding is so generous? When you focus on the short term, that approach – the path laid out by SB 251 – can make a lot of sense.

But when you expand your view to the long term, the logic for SB 251 falls apart. In part, this is because the “promise” of generous federal funding for expansion is really an empty promise. This conclusion becomes clear when you consider the U.S. Treasury’s own statements that federal spending policy “is not sustainable,” or when you consider that the long-term debt and financial obligations of the federal government, not even including Medicaid spending, are nearly equal to the household wealth of the entire country. Those facts become relevant to this discussion when you consider that Washington’s solution to these fiscal problems has been to cut spending to state and local governments – such as sequestration’s cuts to PILT funding – and to low-income Americans – such as the farm bill’s coming cuts to the food stamp program.

The logic for SB 251 also falls apart in the long term because of the risk that Utah taxpayers will not be protected when inevitable federal spending cuts happen.

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