Using public policy to cover a multitude of sins

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

sutherland file pictures 009Sutherland Institute recently released a statement in support of the state Legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid under Obamacare and how it’s choosing instead to pay for expansion itself. Among the many criticisms we’ve heard, one stands out. On Twitter, one critic wrote to us, “Your group really hates Americans who aren’t perfect in the way you approve.”

For many years I’ve wondered how it’s possible that liberals and progressives can’t tell the difference between private lives and public policy. Hardly a day goes by when some personal dysfunction or tragedy isn’t followed by “there ought to be a law” to memorialize someone’s personal problem – usually in the name of tolerance or compassion.

Traditionally, public policy has been limited to matters of procedural justice, negotiating conflicts among competing rights and certain economic externalities such as pollution. But the rise of selfish individualism has changed public policy forever. The rise of selfish individualism to the level of a civil right in the forms of feminism and sexual politics, family breakdown, divorce, single parenthood, fatherless homes, cohabitation, children’s rights and a simple lack of fertility among married couples has changed the focus of public policy away from protecting the common good to championing a multitude of personal dysfunctions.

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How state attorneys should have defended Amendment 3

scalesPaul Mero delves into due process, equal protection, and substance in the second part of an essay that lays out what state attorneys should have argued in the Kitchen v. Herbert case (which resulted in the overturning of Utah’s marriage law):

The “substance” in substantive due process has to mean something. The Court may not reasonably ignore original intent and embrace substantive due process only to ignore the substance that gives life, liberty and property meaning. For instance, if the Court determines that equal protection means only “equal” without examining what is being “protected,” it would miss the entire meaning of substance within the context of the 14th Amendment.

As the state already expressed, the burden of proof in the merits of this case are on the plaintiffs to show that same-sex marriage is in the state interest and serves the common good – not a burden to show that the 14th Amendment has new meaning and that same-sex marriage conforms to that new meaning. Voters overwhelmingly approved Utah’s marriage law. It was approved in the state interest and for the common good. The state interest, your Honor, not any other reason, was and remains at the heart of Utah’s marriage law – an important point proven by rational means.

Click here to read the paper, “What Should Have Been Said, Part 2.”

Click here to read Part 1.

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Sutherland’s position statement on Medicaid expansion

hiddenmoneySutherland Institute understands the perspective of those calling for Utah to follow Obamacare’s vision of Medicaid expansion. The argument sounds reasonable: Since Utahns are paying tax dollars to Washington, D.C., under Obamacare, then why shouldn’t Utah take every Medicaid expansion dollar it can get?

Sutherland also recognizes this as a moment for political courage and leadership. The decision regarding Medicaid expansion is an opportunity for Utah politicians to become statesmen and stateswomen: to rise above short-sighted concerns of moneyed special interests and well-intentioned advocates and, instead, take the long view recognizing the real risks that Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion creates for taxpayers and the neediest Utahns. This is a moment for Utah’s leaders to show why it is and will remain one of the best-managed states in the nation.

Medicaid expansion is an idea that sounds reasonable in the short term, but it’s not. Thoughtful consideration of the issue from a broader, long-term perspective leads to the undeniably logical conclusion that Medicaid expansion is imprudent, irresponsible policy for taxpayers and dishonest, harmful policy for Utahns in need.

Click here to read the rest of this position statement.

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On Point presented by Sutherland Institute, Show 6, 2/21/14

Hear insightful commentary from Utah’s only all-female panel of political insiders discussing current events in Utah politics and policy.

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I’m OK. You’re … well, I’m OK

WashMonument_WhiteHouseAccording to census data, six of the 10 highest-income counties in the United States are within commuting distance of Washington, D.C. In fact, 13 of the 30 richest counties in the nation form a continuous circle around the hallowed halls of power there, cutting it off from the real America both physically and metaphorically.

Our center of public service is also tied for second place in the nation in job creation, with all but two counties in the D.C. metro area below the national unemployment rate.

And, not surprisingly, the Beltway is the only area in the nation with a positive economic confidence index. Why not? The rest of us are paying the bills. They’re just picking who gets the spoils, minus a little something to wet their beaks.

Apparently income inequality is bad for thee but not for me if my job is to take care of flyover country.

I’ll take the whole income-inequality crowd’s arguments a lot more seriously when they start insisting that cameramen and ticket takers get a higher percentage of star actors’ and athletes’ checks, and when pay for “public service” is tied to national averages instead of proximity to the royal court.

Meanwhile, the climate is supposedly cooking on all burners as Al Gore makes a fortune consulting for “green energy” companies; the Hollywood and Wall Street elite fill airports at resorts around the world with their private jets; and our current Secretary of State burns about two-thirds of the average American’s yearly carbon footprint on a single trip to Indonesia preaching about … wait for it … global warming. Just for a little perspective, he burned more carbon preaching to Indonesians about the evils of burning carbon than the amount of carbon an average Indonesian burns in over six years.

Apparently burning carbon is bad for thee but not for me if I’m preaching about the evils of global warming.

I’d take them a lot more seriously if those who make the most noise about “climate change” would reduce their own footprints below those of the people whose lives they want to impoverish through higher costs of everything that uses or is made using energy … which is everything.

Of course they are wealthy enough to buy offsets so somebody can plant a tree somewhere that will presumably photosynthesize their carbon sins away. And our Beltway rulers see their good intentions as penance for the pain they inflict on the rest of us, even if they they profit as a result.

I think we need a modern-day Luther to post 95 theses on a few doors.

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Here’s how Utah can really level the educational playing field

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

Photo by Anissa Thompson

Photo by Anissa Thompson

Ten years ago, Sutherland Institute published a powerful analysis of public education in Utah called Saving Education and Ourselves: The Moral Case for Self-Reliance in Education. Our argument is easy to understand: Able families should receive encouragement to become self-reliant in education, and families unable to be self-reliant in education are welcomed into the public school system.

Admittedly, this education policy model is quite different than what we now have in Utah. Our current system is a top-down, bureaucratic model that assumes that children belong to the state, not parents; public education is the center of democracy, not the family; and only “experts” trained to educate children know what they’re doing.

State law, both in our constitution and by statute, is double-minded about what model to use. The constitution doesn’t trump state statutes in this case because the state Legislature has ultimate control over education funding.

Typically, you have two types of education bills at the Legislature each year – one type serving the education establishment and public school system and another type serving parents and children. A good example of what I mean is the attempt by the education establishment to repeal tax exemptions for dependents. The establishment complains that large families don’t pay their fair share into public education and one way to even the playing field is to get rid of dependent exemptions in the tax code.

Of course, that’s a pretty myopic view of both Utah families and funding for public education. For instance, the same education establishment utters nary a peep about poor families that pay absolutely nothing into the system.

Ten years ago, Sutherland Institute created a better, more equitable way to fund public education in Utah. But to get there, we have to face some realities.

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Stay outta my way!

In this video clip from Sutherland’s 2014 Legislative Policy Conference, Paul Mero asks two supporters of the Count My Vote initiative, LaVarr Webb and Kirk Jowers, whether they would drop Count My Vote if all their concerns were addressed – short of getting rid of the party caucuses.

The response was noncommittal. Webb, for instance, said, “It would be difficult to stop this thing at this point. … I haven’t made my mind up on that.”

Since then, Senator Curt Bramble’s bill, SB 54, which concerns itself with such election reforms, has been approved unanimously by the Senate Business and Labor Committee. Click here to read Count My Vote’s response to the bill. (Spoiler: They’re not thrilled.)

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Playing chicken with farmers’ livelihoods

Birds_Free_RangeThe Salt Lake Tribune recently ran a story about how federal meat processing regulations recently stopped a local natural-chicken farming operation from processing the chickens of other small chicken farming operations, leaving no way for these latter farms to get their chickens processed and sold.

No one on these farms had done anything that caused a public health scare. No one had gotten sick from the chickens being processed. Regulators who were double-checking the federal rules on meat processing found that this natural-chicken farmer was not permitted to process the chickens from other farms, so they shut down the processing of chickens from other chicken farms “to protect the public.”

Consider that. What is the public being protected from? Certainly not an actual public health problem, since there was no actual health problem being caused by the chicken farming and processing. Instead we are being “protected” from the possibility of a public health problem that might, in theory, be caused at some point in the future by a chicken processing operation that is processing chickens from farms it does not control. So we are preventing innocent people from pursuing legal, legitimate ways of supporting themselves and their families for no other reason than the possibility that their way of doing business might happen, in the future, to cause a public health scare.

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Count My Vote supporters don’t know when to call it a win

Rocky_victoryCount My Vote is not an issue high on the priority list for Sutherland Institute, and yet, it inexorably draws my attention. I’m stunned when the “reasonable” people – normally the adults in the room – behave like spoiled children. Count My Vote is a case in point.

The Utah Legislature is considering a bill by Senator Curt Bramble, SB 54, to implement Count My Vote reforms while holding onto Utah’s caucus and convention system. The Count My Vote initiative would make that system irrelevant by replacing delegate candidate selection with direct primaries. Supporters of Count My Vote cite several reforms that lead them to champion direct primaries. SB 54 addresses each of those reforms and defaults to direct primaries, if political parties fail to adopt the reforms. In other words, SB 54 gives Count My Vote supporters the victory they seek – SB 54 extorts desired reforms among political parties at the threat of exposure to direct primaries. It’s easy to understand.

You would think Count My Vote supporters would call it a win and go home. But not so. Unbelievably, these supporters actually take umbrage at SB 54.

In the Deseret News, LaVarr Webb expresses his opposition to SB 54. He calls it a “clever” bill designed to “destroy” the Count My Vote initiative. In the initiative’s defense he writes,

Count My Vote’s proposal asks voters to choose whether all voters, through a direct primary, have a voice in selecting party nominees, creating broader participation in our political system, instead of continuing to centralize power in a select few caucus attendees and convention delegates, many of whom do not reflect mainstream Utah positions.

He italicized the word all. Admittedly, I’m not a political process geek. I don’t know the stats for voter participation – and, as I’ve mentioned in front of Count My Vote supporters, voter participation is not my definition of responsible citizenship (I’ll say it again here: I’d like more intelligent, informed and principled voters, not just more voters). So I wasn’t aware that all voters participate in direct primaries. Common sense tells me that’s not so, but I’ll try to verify that point made by LaVarr. My guess is that he’s wrong about that point.

Neither am I an expert about Utah’s historic caucus and convention system, so I’m not quite sure about LaVarr’s concerns about voter participation, unless his true goal is to get rid of political parties altogether. Based on my own experiences, I think Utah’s political parties and the caucus/convention system permit any registered voter to participate in these party processes. The reforms in SB 54 remind us that some people have a more difficult time physically participating than others. But nothing in our current processes excludes the participation of any registered voter who identifies with a political party.

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On Point presented by Sutherland Institute, Show 5, 2/14/14

Join Utah’s all-female panel of leading politicos for a discussion of current events related to Utah policy and politics.

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Testimony on HB 338 (Alcohol Beverage License Amendments)

Utah_State_Capitol_2008Testimony presented by Derek Monson, director of public policy, Sutherland Institute, on Feb. 14 before the House Revenue and Taxation Standing Committee of the Utah Legislature regarding HB 338 – Alcohol Beverage License Amendments:

Thank you Mr. Chair and members of the committee. My name is Derek Monson and I am policy director with Sutherland Institute. Sutherland opposes HB 338 and I appreciate the chance to explain why.

The “policies of the state” when it comes to alcohol are plainly stated in Utah Code 32B-1-103. Though the bill before you doesn’t explicitly seek changes to those policies, the debate surrounding this bill is really a debate about the goals and merits of policies in that section of Utah law.

As stated in that law, one primary goal of alcohol policy is to “reasonably satisfy the public demand” for alcohol. I submit to you that HB 338 clearly does not meet this goal. First, in reality there is no significant excess public demand for alcohol that this bill would meet. This is illustrated by the fact that most of the establishments on the waiting list for a dining club license are already in business and selling alcohol under another kind of alcohol license. Beyond that simple fact is the reality that drinking adults in Utah have literally hundreds of options to choose from for their desired alcohol consumption. In other words, the public demand for liquor is already well provided for, making HB 338 completely unnecessary from this perspective.

Other primary goals of Utah alcohol policy are “to protect the public interest, including the rights of citizens who do not wish to be involved with alcoholic products,” and to “promote the reduction of the harmful effects” of overconsumption and underage drinking. According to credible research HB 338 does not accomplish these goals, and in fact undermines them.

The Community Preventive Services Task Force is an independent, unpaid panel of public health experts that seeks “scientifically proven” public health solutions that save lives, increase lifespans, and improve quality of life. In 2007, a team of researchers with the task force reviewed all available studies on the impact of changing the number of alcohol outlets in a given area. After identifying 30 studies from the last 40 years that met sufficient quality of rigor and research methods, they reported a positive association between the number of alcohol outlets in a given area and “excessive alcohol consumption and related harms” to public health and safety. In short, HB 338 actually undermines the public interest in health and safety and encourages overconsumption and its related harms.

For these reasons, we encourage you to oppose HB 338. Thank you.

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Why would schools kick digital learners off campus?

vulturecomputerA high school sophomore told the Senate Education Standing Committee recently that she was able to testify to them (in the middle of a school day) in support of requiring parental notification about the Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP) because she was “not permitted to be on school grounds” at her public school at that particular time. Why? Because that time slot in her school schedule was filled with an online class, and rather than accommodate that child the school decided to kick her off campus and then make her come back when her next on-campus period began.

Shortly after that, a mother of children who had taken some classes through the SOEP – while continuing to take most classes at their local district school – also testified. Her children up in Logan and Cache school districts were “not allowed to be on campus at any time for any reason” during their online class time because it supposedly created “a safety issue” – the presence on campus of a child in an online class evidently threatened the safety of others.

All of this makes one wonder why school districts are ostracizing and discriminating against children who enroll in a few online classes? What do school districts accomplish by kicking children off campus and labeling them as safety threats for trying to improve their education through digital learning?

No person thinking rationally would conclude that enrollment in an online class is a sign that a child is a threat to the safety of other children at school. Though they might rationally conclude that child’s action is a threat to their state funding, since a portion of it follows the child to the digital learning provider. But one hopes that no school district official in Utah would be as selfish and demeaning as to view a child primarily in terms of their monetary value, or act on a child’s sincere desire to improve their life through digital learning by punishing that child for negatively impacting their bottom line.

So why are some Utah school districts discriminating against children seeking digital learning opportunities? We can’t know for certain without further evidence, but the logical conclusions based on the facts we do have are not encouraging, neither for the children seeking a better education through digital learning nor for the adults being employed by taxpayers to watch out for their well-being.

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Why Medicaid expansion will hurt Utah’s most vulnerable

MystethoscopeA new analysis by Jonathan Ingram of the Foundation for Government Accountability and Derek Monson of Sutherland Institute explains why Utah should opt out of Medicaid expansion:

Utah’s Medicaid expansion plans put the state’s truly needy citizens at great risk. It is important to remember who would actually qualify for Utah’s Medicaid expansion. The Medicaid expansion does not cover the elderly, individuals with disabilities or even poor children–groups considered among the most vulnerable. Instead, Utah’s plan simply expands Medicaid eligibility to a new class of able-bodied, working-age adults. …

This will ultimately create a two-tiered system of care, where able-bodied adults are prioritized over the truly needy.

The paper, An Analysis of Utah’s Proposed Medicaid Expansion, goes on to explain that Medicaid expansion will crowd out private insurance and create a lot of budgeting uncertainty.

At a time when policymakers are concerned with rebuilding Utah’s cash reserves and paying down existing state debt, creating a new entitlement for able-bodied adults is a significant risk when there is no reliable way to project how much the expansion will actually cost.

Click here to read the full paper.

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Testimony on SB 171 (Student-Centered Learning Pilot Program)

Photo Credit: Scott Catron

Photo Credit: Scott Catron

Testimony presented Feb. 12 by Stan Rasmussen, director of public affairs, Sutherland Institute, before the Senate Education Standing Committee of the Utah Legislature regarding SB 171 – Student-Centered Learning Pilot Program:

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon, Senators. Stan Rasmussen, representing Sutherland Institute.

We commend Senator Stephenson for his efforts in developing this proposal and bringing it forward.

As has been described, the bill establishes a pilot program wherein school districts would develop a blended-learning program for elementary and secondary students.

The blended approach, that includes digital-learning methods and experiences, allows for the personalizing and customizing of a child’s education. Instead of simply perpetuating the standardization of what and in what order the student learns, a more blended approach has the potential to tap into and encourage the child’s inherent desire to learn. Instead of the child being in a large group of students trying to learn the same things, in very similar ways, at the same time – notwithstanding the dedicated efforts of a caring teacher tasked with managing the large group – the enhanced personalization available in a blended approach increases the opportunity for the student to learn in his or her individual manner and sequence.

The proposed pilot program would create a context for developing and refining approaches that respect and reflect the fact that individual children learn differently – in different ways, at different times and at different rates – and thereby a context for improved student learning.

For these reasons, we consider it prudent to explore how to bring this potential into public education schools by means of the proposed Student-Centered Learning Pilot Program and urge your support of this bill.

Thank you.

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Marriage laws and the delicate balance between order and liberty

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

Balancing_act_During a radio interview this week about the state’s defense of Utah’s marriage law, my host along with an opposing guest expressed incredulity about my references to “ordered liberty.” They didn’t get it. Those words, “ordered liberty,” were foreign to them. In the context of the same-sex marriage debate, those words were unrecognizable. Frankly, I’m amazed that two intelligent people like them don’t get it – then again, maybe they don’t want to get it.

I must own two dozen books about that subject alone. Ordered liberty is the basis of a free society. And it’s easy to understand.

A free society – people who are both free and who live together in society – requires recognition of both order and individual liberty. Just think about traffic laws. We’re free to drive where we want, when we want and – 99 percent of the time – we get where we’re going safely precisely because we have rules for the road. Driving is a combination of individual liberty and order. A free society is no different.

If you’re old enough you might recall that wonderful series on PBS titled “The Constitution: That Delicate Balance” – well, that delicate balance is between order and liberty. That balance is in constant flux.

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