Thursday, January 22, 2015

Slipped the Surly Bonds: The Memorial of Speaker Rebecca Dawn Lockhart



"Friends, though absent, are still present." - Cicero

When the news announced recently that Speaker Becky Lockhart was critically ill, I was taken aback.  The suddenness of her illness seemed puzzling and remarkable to me.  Her vitality and energetic spirit seemed so incongruent with such an affliction.  But, when the news came shortly thereafter that she had passed from her illness, I was in complete disbelief.  I giant hole was left in my heart.

As Legislators, we see each other every month or so at official gatherings.  But, due to the holidays, it had been a couple months since I last saw Becky.  Her passing came so quickly and unexpectedly that the news felt like a cruel hoax.  But, that feeling was immediately extinguished today at her memorial held at the Capitol.  I can barely relate the feeling of seeing her husband Stan and their children walk into the Rotunda without her.  It was at that moment that somber disbelief transformed into poignant grief.

Nevertheless, the memorial services were beautiful.  They celebrated Becky's many accomplishments as a mother, wife, and political leader.  Her daughter spoke with conviction, maturity, and hope.  Ryan Wilcox sang a beautiful rendition of Be Still My Soul.  The other speakers, including the Governor, gave beautiful spiritual messages that inspired and edified the soul.  

The memorial has helped me to begin healing the wound of Becky's untimely departure.  She has left many of us with wonderful memories.  On the opening day of the General Session, the Legislature will be presenting a book of memories written by Legislators who served with Becky.  I wanted to share an experience that wasn't about the regular political grind that we usually experience together.  Here is the story I submitted:

 My most memorable experience with Becky was at NCSL Atlanta in 2013.  After dinner one evening, Ryan Wilcox coaxed Becky and me into accompanying him on a hunt for Georgia peaches.  It appeared we were in luck because supposedly there was a giant indoor Farmer's Market about six miles from our hotel and it was open 24 hours a day.  So, from the restaurant, we walked in the dark to the nearest hotel where a line of cab drivers were eager to serve.  Dressed professionally as we were, the taxi supervisor guided us to a specific driver to send us on our way.  Once we were in the cab though, we knew were in trouble.  Our driver spoke fluent Ethiopian but not enough english to understand the directions we were giving him.  Neither was he accustomed to the taxi GPS map system in his vehicle.  Nevertheless, as we struggled to communicate, the taxi started moving and we were on our way…to somewhere.  Ryan, in a mix of good humor and exasperation, began using the GPS on his phone to instruct the driver where to turn.  We were travelling at speeds far in excess of what was safe for the curves in the road.  Becky was holding on tightly to the door grips as the driver pushed our small sedan to its limits.  Our driver was lost and driving erratically in the dark streets of unknown neighborhoods.  Finally, after driving through run down streets and ominous looking industrial parks, we stopped to call the Farmers Market for directions.  That was the moment they informed us that the peach vendor had packed up and gone home for the evening.  Becky, Ryan, and I were completely flummoxed.  We failed in our mission.  To add insult to injury, we had to instruct our driver on how to get back to the hotel.  When we arrived the meter stopped running.  The driver turned to us for payment.  The whole terrifying adventure cost us $75.        
I pray for the comfort of Becky's family as they move forward in her absence.  As a man of faith, I know that they will ultimately be reunited, even if the temporary separation may grieve the heart.  Becky would have wanted us to keep our chin up and press forward.  The Legislature will honor that as we work with diligence and carry out the duties of our office.  Her memory will echo in the Chamber of the House and the hearts of those who are privileged to call her a friend and colleague.     
   

Saturday, January 17, 2015

FUNDING OGDEN'S RENEWAL: Preserving Utah's Historic Legacy


In the last 15 years, Ogden has come a long in in picking itself up by its boot straps.  Yet, some of the issues the community faces require more help than we can provide ourselves at the moment.  So, this year I will be requesting a significant one-time appropriation to fix an intractable problem that has afflicted Ogden for decades.  The request will be for $2.5 Million from the state to focus on historic preservation and unit reduction in Ogden's historic downtown neighborhoods.


To understand the problem, we have to look back in time.  Ogden experienced a significant economic boom from 1870-1960.  This 90 year span of prosperity saw Ogden become one of the prominent cities in the West, even rivaling Salt Lake City as a destination location.  Of course, this tide of good fortune was hitched to the railroad. And thus, it makes sense that when the railroad began to sputter as an economic engine, Ogden's economy began to sputter in tandem.


From 1960 to the mid 1990's, Ogden's economy suffered as industries fell into obsolescence and job opportunities disappeared.   Early in the decline, the loss of jobs meant that people had to leave the city to find employment elsewhere.  Also, outdated housing stock pushed home buyers into new construction homes in the suburbs.  This outward migration of people put pressure on the city to stay viable as a livable community.


Unfortunately, also during this period, city leaders made some serious missteps in how they managed the movement of people.  During the boom times, the city increased its zoning density to accommodate the need for people to live close to industry.  Yet, during the bust, they maintained these high density zoning policies in hopes of attracting more people to the city center.  This policy gave rise to the flop house.

1890's Victorian Home Converted to 6 Units in 1950's
 Many of the great historic homes of the city were converted into multi-unit housing.  This process continued well into the bust era as landlords tried to maximize their revenue streams.  The results have not been pretty.


As this subdivision and density increase wore on, even as jobs and incomes declined, Ogden's mix of housing took some dramatic turns.  Today we see the legacy this has created in the housing stock.

Ogden, Utah - Occupied Housing Statistics - 2010 Census

The state average for owner occupancy is 70%.  So, there is quite a bit of room for improvement.  In addition, due to the wear and tear on the existing buildings, vacant properties are abnormally high as well.

Ogden, Utah - Vacant Housing - 2010 Census

Typically, natural vacancy rates hover around 4%-5% for homes that are tenable.  So, with 9% of the housing stock being vacant, we know there are problems that need to be resolved.  Typically, these surplus vacant homes are in disrepair and need renovation.

Examples of homes that need attention and preservation are prevalent:

Arts and Crafts Era Home Converted to 3 Units

Victorian Era Home Converted to 4 Units



Victorian Era Home Converted to 3 Units

Victorian Era Home Converted to 4 Units
The purpose for the requested funds is to bridge the market gap that exists between multi-unit homes and their single family counterparts.  When a homes is subdivided, the value of that property is based on its ability to generate rent revenue rather than its value as a home.  This inherently increases its market value beyond what it would be normally.  That increase means that owner occupants who want to restore these properties into homesteads cannot afford to do so because the the cost to purchase and repair far exceeds what the market would value the home after it is restored.  It is a losing proposition from the outset.

So, it is proposed, to bridge this market gap, that a grant be extended to homeowners who want to eliminate units in some of these older properties.  The program would offer homeowners $20,000 per unit that is eliminated.  The money would be available to owner occupants or non-profits selling to owner-occupants for unit consolidation purposes.  Owners would be able to work on the property themselves and would provide the financing for purchase and additional repairs.  Ogden City will administer the program much like it does the Own In Ogden program today.

Ogden City has done a lot of heavy lifting with restoring some of the most onerous properties in the city.  They have over a decade's experience now understanding what is involved with the process of rehabilitating these old homes.  Here are some examples:





However, unlike past years where the city was heavily involved in the purchase, repair, and resell of these properties.  The requested funds will be leveraged to accomplish more in a shorter period of time.  Over the past 13 years, Ogden City has spend approximately $210,000 of taxpayer funds for every home that it has restored.  In that time, the city has spend about $2.5 Million on 12 homes.  Though a noble effort, that is still a lot of slow and heavy lifting.  

By leveraging the private market however, much more can be accomplished in a shorter period of time. The proposed funds will repair approximately 50 homes with an average of $50,000 invested per house.  It is estimated that this would also be accomplished in a much shorter 5 year time frame.  
The program would eliminate 125 substandard housing units in the city.

There are many obvious benefits to this program.

1.  Historic Preservation

Each year the city loses historic housing to fires caused by faulty electrical work.  Multi-unit housing is often a scene of makeshift repairs and shoddy craftsmanship which puts these homes at serious risk.  Preserving our legacy for a future generation is a benefit to all Utahns. 

2.  Improved Tax Assessed Values and Property Tax Revenues

Many of these multi-plexed homes are assessed at values less than their market value.  This is partly due to the age of the properties and the fact that building permits have not been pulled for improvements made to them.  Their value is depreciating over time.  But, given the level of improvements that will be made to the property, permits will be pulled and the tax assessed values will increase to reflect the improved state of the properties.  This increase will create a long term return on investment for the monies invested.  

3.  Improved Neighborhood Stability

This program is not desiged to be a handout to the Ogden Community. Rather, it is designed to create a critical mass of rejuvination and restoration so that the community will be able to sustain these efforts without the assistance of the State in the future.  By stabilizing the neighborhood and bringing new energy to the community, it should provide a stable base for Ogden to care for its own neighborhood revitalization needs moving forward.  

4.  Decreased Student Mobility

Ogden School District has a distinct problem with student mobility.  Due to the exaggerated number of rental units in the city, it is no surprise that students move frequently when their parent's leases expire.  Reducing the unit count in the city will help reduce student mobility in the areas where the homes are being repaired.  Lower mobility will help improve school performance. 

5.  Improved Income Demographics and Sales Tax Base

Since the individuals restoring these homes will have disposable income.  The increased spending at local business and in the community should help foster commercial development and improve sales tax revenues.. 

6.  Increased Humanitarian Resources

The healthiest communities are those that have balance.  In Ogden's case, there is a large disadvantaged community that has been squeezed together in a small space.  This creates stress in the community since there are few individuals with resources to assist the urgent needs of the underprivileged.  As a member of the community who serves these disadvantaged individuals in charitable settings, I have first hand knowledge of how the imbalance of people in the community adversely affects those in need.  Reducing units and restoring these historic properties will undoubtedly provide homes for individuals who have the resources to serve their neighbors and help lift the community as a whole.  

7.  Increase in Construction Jobs

Finally, given the amount of work that needs to be done to these homes, construction jobs will ultimately be created while the work is in progress.  This is a brief but still important component in understanding the return on investment this program creates.  

I look forward to presenting this case to the Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee this session.  Ogden City and Weber County officials have pledged their support.  It is time to heal Ogden's neighborhoods for the next generations to come.  
    

Friday, January 16, 2015

HB127: Equal Window Egress Protections



Laws are a very contemporary thing.  For the most part, due to our representative form of government where people pick who will write the laws for them, the laws of the land accommodate the majority of citizens and reflect the circumstances of our day.  For instance, we don't tax telegraph lines anymore because that isn't a technology that people use.  Or, laws preventing stores from being open on Sunday are no longer on the books because people want to shop on Sunday.  The legislative process adapts to the will of the people as it has been designed to do.     

Likewise, this process is reflected in the laws that govern construction of new buildings.  There was a time about 145 years ago when homes in Utah were made from adobe.  Mud and straw was the prevalent construction material.  As time progressed, cedar lapboard was used, brick became more common and ultimately we arrived at the contemporary construction techniques and standards that we use today.  

This body of construction rules is what we call the Building Code.  The state has had a habit of adopting new buidling code every 3 to 5 years.  This process means that every every 3 to 5 years homes built prior to the adoption of the new code fall out of compliance with whatever new rule is adopted.  Thus, as time marches on and the rules become more rigorous or demanding, more and more homes find themselves not "up to code".  

With this being the case, cities, which are responsible for enforcing the code, sometimes find themselves wanting to enforce today's rigorous codes on older structures that were not built with these standards in mind.  The application of today's building codes can sometimes threaten the integrity of older structures. 

A good example of this is with window egress.  When building codes changed some time around 2008 it called for basement bedroom window openings to be 5.7 sqft.  Most older homes were built with basement windows smaller than that in size.  So, some city officials began forcing owners to cut into the foundations of their homes and install larger windows according to the new code.  

Many older homes have concrete foundations without rebar reinforcement or are made of stone and mortar.  Obviously,  requiring sensitive foundations to be cut can create some significant risks of damage to the property.  So, in 2011 Senator Curt Bramble ran SB 178 which stated that cities could not require basement windows be expanded if it risked damaging non-conforming rental properties.  Landlords have historically been the easy targets of city buiding officials.  The bill passed and became law.  Unfortunately, the way it was written did not show up in the area of code that was used day to day by city building officials.  So, in 2012, I ran a clean up bill, HB383, to correct that problem.  

This year we are working to provide for equal application of this principle for all properties regardless of their use or zoning.  The previous bills applied only to rental properties that were non-conforming for the zone in which they resided.  For instance, if the property was a fourplex in a duplex zone, or a duplex in a single family home zone.  This provision seems to leave a lot of other properties unprotected. 

So, this year HB 127 seeks to provide the same protections to rental or owner occupied homes regardless whether they are conforming or non-conforming for the zone in which they reside.  The law will apply to cities as well as counties.  This should protect most vintage and historic homes from reckless tampering and provide some relief to homeowners who unhappily find themselves in the scope of over zealous building officials.  

Obviously, there are other ways to improve safety while maintaining original basement egress windows and this law would not affect those provisions.  Nevertheless, this bill should be a final and equitable adjustment that applies common sense to an area that has often vexed innocent owners of older homes.    

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bill File: Veterinary Practice Act Amendment



At the end of last year's session, I was contacted by a local veterinarian who was concerned about Utah's laws governing the business.  His problem was that his business had grown and he needed to bring on a partner in the business to continue growing.  The partner they selected was not a licensed veterinarian but had skills that helped their business tremendously.  As they met with their attorney to discuss the way forward, it came to their attention that state law forbid organizing their business in such a way.

Even more disturbing, however, was to discover that not only did law forbid this from occurring, but that the State had essentially turned a blind eye to enforcing any of these statutes.  When I called the Division of Professional Licensing (DOPL) to discuss this issue, they were caught a bit flat footed.  What we discovered was that there was significant veterinary industry reform in 2009 that was supposed to address this issue.  That was the legislative intent, at least.  But, the devil is always in the details.  The specific language was somehow overlooked, and while the legislature desired a less rigid form of business model regulation in the veterinary industry, it didn't get written into the law.  Since that time, DOPL has been honoring the legislative intent of those reforms by essentially ignoring the existing code.

This discrepancy poses a problem for law abiding folks who want to follow the rules.  Without understanding the politics behind the law, any attorney would advise his or her client to follow the statute.  That is exactly what happened to this local veterinarian.  Fortunately, they were able to identify the problem and we have drafted a bill to correct it.  Here is the language of our proposal:




It is my hope that this will open up a lot of opportunity for aspiring veterinarians.  It should provide a means for capital to flow into the industry and help grow existing businesses where there is the desire to do so.


2015 Pre-Session Primer: Pin the Tail on the Taxpayer



The Majority Caucus of the House of Representatives met recently to discuss the heavy issues that are facing our state this coming year.  Here is a review of the topics we discussed.

The Budget


While the media is reporting a budget surplus this year of over $600 Million dollars.  After considering obligations already committed to for this next fiscal year, the Legislature will have less than that to appropriate to on-going and one-time programs.

The Governor's recent budget proposal presumes that the Legislature will change existing law to allow some of his budgetary suggestions to come to fruition.  So far, we are unsure to what extent that will occur.  The Governor has the bully pulpit, but the Legislature has the vote. 

House Leadership has tasked us with working to reduce the size of our State Budget by 2% this year.  That means each appropriation committee will be looking for places to save money and cut waste.  This exercise should give department administrators the opportunity to eliminate programs they see as inefficient or non-essential. If we were to guarantee them the same funding as previous years, there would be no incentive for administrators to select areas where they could reduce their staff or work load. 
Finally, unlike last year which was filled to the brim with budget meetings, the first week will be sprinkled with  standing committee hearings as well.

Ultimately, there will be major shifts in how the budget construed this year and you can count on a vigorous and lively debate on how taxpayer money is spent in 2015.

The Healthy Utah Plan

The Governor has completed his negotiations with the Feds on his vision for Medicaid Expansion.  The plan will cost Utah about $78M annually to pay for covering people who earn less than 138% of what the is currently defined as the poverty level.  That price represents 10% of the cost of the whole program and it assumes the federal government will honor its promise to pay the remaining $702M in expenses.  Of course, the definition of poverty could always change or the Feds could break their promise to pay, or both. The House is uncertain of the ability of the Federal government to keep its promise.  There is also uncertainty as to the future of Obamacare with a new Congress coming and the potential of a political change in the White House in 2016.  So, rather than promise benefits today and then revoke them tomorrow when they are no longer financially sustainable, the House is looking at other more sustainable options.  Expect a lively debate on this subject.

Transportation


The Governor's proposal to shift money out of transportation and into education puts the Legislature in a sticky position. Transportation is a lubricant of the economy.  Yet, the costs of road construction and maintenance are outpacing inflation.  Many of Utah's rural roads are being left without maintenance due to budget constraints.  In addition, the Governor's budget proposal appears to put even more roads at risk of deferred maintenance and delay projects that accommodate population growth.  That is, unless the Legislature wants to burden the people with a tax increase.


Kids need to be bused to school and buses need roads.  Perhaps a future work around is to outfit our school buses with all terrain wheels and suspensions.  Joking aside, the Legislature will be working on the issue of how to adequately and fairly address our transportation needs.  This includes inter-modal transit options as well.

To fund roads, some have advocated for an increase in the gas tax.  Frankly, I am attracted to the idea of toll roads as a means to pay for usage.  It is the fairest and most direct way to tie the cost and benefit of road use to the user.  However, given that toll roads are terribly unpopular, I believe we could scrap the gas tax entirely and switch to a usage tax based on miles driven each year.  The mileage could be accounted for during annual vehicle registration.  Obviously, there are a few scenarios in which this kind of tax wouldn't work, but I believe the concept could be adapted to be fair and proportionate.

Regardless, expect heavy deliberations on how to meet our transportation needs.  

Better Process

During the general session, we debate bills on the floor and vote them up or down.  However, prior to coming to our floor for a vote, the bill has typically been heard in a committee hearing that is open to the public for comment.  The committee hearing is a very valuable part of our process.  Typically, after a bill passes on the House floor, it is sent to the Senate where it receives a committee hearing on their side and then it is debated and voted upon on the Senate floor.

One of the interesting things that happens at the end of the general session is a compression in time.  Due to this, the House and Senate mutually "suspend the rules" so that bills can be debated on the floor without a committee hearing. For obvious reasons,  this has sometimes created bad results.  (Note: 58% of the 500+  bills passed last year were done so on the last three days of the session when rules were suspended.  Over 30% never received a House committee hearing.) After witnessing this process worsen over the past several years, House leadership proposed in our meeting that we change the gameplan.

For 2015, the House will not suspend the rules except on the last day of the general session.  Even during this rule suspension, bills will be given priority that have had a House standing committee hearing.  This will mean that members of the body will have already had a chance to read the bill, hear the issue, and comprehend the legislation that is being proposed before it comes to the floor.  It is anticipated that while this may decrease the number of bills that are passed, it will increase the quality of legislation coming from our body.

At the end of our discussion on this topic, I made the motion that our majority caucus accept leadership's plan.  The motion moved forward unanimously.

Education



There will be a lot of attention on education issues this year.  Again, with the Governor throwing down the gauntlet with his budget proposals, the Legislature will trying to find a sustainable way forward.

One of the more interesting proposals made to us by a representative from Logan is an income tax increase of 2%.  Since every dime of our income taxes pay for education, this is seen by the sponsor as a way to help boost funding.  The sponsor cited the institution of the flat tax in 2008 as unfortunate because the state suffered from declining revenues during the recession.  Ironically, had taxes been kept higher during that period, the taxpayers would have had even less money in their pocket during that painful economic downturn.

I can't see increasing taxes now during the good times, when the bad times are again certainly on the horizon.  We must work to make due with what we have.  


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Court Reform: Changes to Utah's Commissioner System



Over the past couple of years, I have proposed some significant reforms in how Utah's courts are structured.  However, due to the complexity of the problem and a lack of political will from the Senate, these all-encompassing changes failed to gain traction.

So, this last Spring, I was invited by the Administrator of the Courts to participate in a work group studying how Commissioners operate in our District Courts.  One of the problems we recognized in my earlier broad proposal was that Commissioners are given the power of  judges, but they are not subject to the same public scrutiny and vetting that judges receive.

Fortunately, our work group this past interim recognized that and has made proposed changes to how Commissioners are nominated and retained.  Among other recommendations, we endorsed a public comment period that will be open for Commissioners who are tapped to be hired or upon renewal of a term.  These comments will be delivered to the presiding judge who will sift through them as the nomination/retention process moves forward.

This is a significant policy change.  Hopefully, our work group's efforts will make a difference in how the public relates to its courts and help foster faith and confidence in how justice is administered in our state.

Here is a copy of our report and recommendations for your review.  These were presented to the Judicial Council on November 24th and fully approved for implementation.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Utah Asserts Our Rights To Our Land


Utah's Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office released its much anticipated feasibility study regarding Utah's capacity as a State to manage lands currently controlled by the Federal Government.

The bottom line?  Utah has what it takes to do the job and do it right.  Here are all 784 pages of the in-depth details for your review.
  


The Legislature will be working diligently this coming General Session to move the ball forward so Utah can gain its rightful stewardship over our public lands.