Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mr. Peterson Awarded by Utah Business Coalition

I was honored this week to receive a "Legislative Champion" award from the Utah Business Coalition for my work in the House to make Utah a business friendly environment.  I am grateful for the part I can play to help keep Utah's economy moving forward and encourage an environment that creates jobs for its citizens.

Monday, October 13, 2014

VIDEO: Lt. Governor Quizzes The Electorate

How much does our electorate know about Utah State Government?  This hilarious video hosted by Lt. Governor Spencer Cox gives us some insight.

Next Up:  Who is the Utah House Majority Whip? (...and what IS a House Majority Whip anyway?)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Scourge of Domestic Violence

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  I was invited by the director of the YCC Center in Ogden to speak to advocates and stakeholders about the importance of recognizing the impact domestic violence has in our community.

Ogden Police Chief Mike Ashment spoke before me and shared some shocking facts.  Ogden Police Department responded to over 1,400 domestic violence calls last year.  Currently, they are on pace to nearly match that for 2014.  After my remarks, we heard a compelling personal story from a survivor of domestic violence.

This brave woman talked about how her boyfriend began to control all aspects of her life and eventually cut her off from communication with her family.  He became physically and emotionally abusive.  His vices cost him his job and it put both of them homeless on the streets of Las Vegas. They barely survived by foraging in the the city center.

Ultimately, she escaped to Utah and was able to rebuild her life and her self esteem with the help of the staff at Ogden's YCC Center.  It was a compelling and emotional story to hear.

Domestic violence is abundant in our society much more than our culture recognizes. We seem to pay attention only when it escalates to the point of irreversible tragedy.  I believe we can do better. We need to let those in abusive relationship know that they need not tolerate abusive treatment and that there are safe havens available to help them escape the cycle of violence.  The YCC is one such safe haven in Weber County.

Let's take a moment to contemplate the impact that domestic violence has on our community and future generations of kids who witness it in their homes.  We need to be willing to reach out to those who are suffering and encourage them to seek help.  May we have the courage and wisdom to do so.        

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Moving the State Prison To Weber County?

Photo Courtesy The Salt Lake Tribute

During our most recent interim legislative meeting, we received an update on the the Draper Prison relocation process.  We were told that 25 sites have been selected throughout the state for vetting based on a specific set of criteria.  Out of curiosity, I inquired if Weber County was on the "Top 25" list and I was told that it was.

So, could the State Prison end up in Weber County?  To answer this question we have to dig into the moving parts of the process.  First, lets discuss the criteria that PRADA (the agency tapped to vet the proposition of a new prison) is using to determine the best site.  The agency is ranking sites based on a score of 100 possible points with points being given for the following characteristics:

Proximity to Society and Amenities - 35 Points (the closer the prison is to services the higher the ranking)

Community Support - 15 Points

Land Quality and Environmental Impact - 15 Points

Infrastructure - 15 Points

Community Services - 10 Points

Development Costs - 10 Points

We were not versed in the exact way points would be assigned, but this helps give us an idea of the general criteria. 

Obviously, Weber County scores well on proximity to amenities.  It would score high in that category.  But, when it comes to the Community Support issue, the discussion becomes interesting.  While some local governments scoff at the idea of hosting a prison, others are contending for the prison to come to them because it is a source of stable jobs.  Thus, these communities are competing with each other in the form of economic incentives to attract the prison to their location.  In talking to those informed on this issue in Weber County, the county is not really interested in participating in this bidding war.  Combined with the ill-will expressed by most residents of Weber County regarding the idea of bringing the prison here, local leaders would be hard pressed to give away precious taxpayer money while simultaneously poking those taxpayers in the eye with a stick.  The proposition appears to be a non-starter as local leaders look to avoid displeasing the electorate.

Another area Weber County scores low on is land quality.  The only place a prison could be built without using eminent domain to acquire farm land would be in the extreme western portion of the county near the lake.  That land has a water table that is nearly above ground.  The swampy land is just too difficult to build on without incurring a tremendous expense.  The water table issue also means that our environmental impact may be larger than is desired due to its proximity to wildlife habitat. Finally, we have development costs and community services which are also impacted due to the swamp lands problem.

So, when factoring all these things together, Weber County scores pretty low on the dial.  I am told that due to this, it has not made it to the Top 10 of potential sites.  But, given our citizen's general unease with the proposition, that may just be for the better.         

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Urban Metamorphosis: Stripping Thorns from Utah's Blossoming Rose

I recently finished reading John Kenneth Galbraith's book The Nature of Mass Poverty.  It is a fascinating read on the dynamics at play that keep people trapped in the poverty cycle.  While the book was specifically addressing the rural poor in other countries, some of the concepts discussed apply to our own urban populations who struggle to improve their wages and standard of living.

One concept discussed in the book was the idea of accommodation.  When enough poor people are congregated in an area together, poverty is reinforced in that community. The life experiences and culture of that population are limited to their immediate surroundings.  Thus, the opportunities that would help lift them out of poverty are often out of view or go unrecognized when present due to a lifetime of experiences and culture that focus on survival rather than economic improvement.

Often, when the poor are living extremely close to the edge of daily survival, the risks associated with changing their life's circumstances for the better are perceived as being very high.  So, when opportunities do arise and are recognized, they are rejected due to the perceived risk.  We see this in folks who cannot take time away from work to go to school.  The schooling would increase their standard of living in the future but may threaten to put them out on the street today.  Such hard decisions are made everyday in poorer communities; and thus, the poor communities stay poor.  

I live in an area of Ogden that has a high proportion of families living in poverty.  I see the culture that has kept generations of families in bondage to the poverty cycle.  This has been a major concern of mine.  As Ogden blossoms as a rose and our community (along with others) continues to beautify and rise from obscurity, what is to be done to lift the urban poor who live among us?  The topic deserves our attention.

It shouldn't surprise us that motivation is one of the key factors to be affected when improving the standard of living of a poor people.  Mr. Galbraith quizzes us on this concept in his book:

Motivation, like so much else, is subject to conditioning by its culture.  If forces, great or overwhelming, act to inhibit or exclude economic improvement, will not people - some, if not all - abandon the struggle?                 
Indeed, he is correct.  What kind of forces could overwhelm economic improvement?  In urban centers, many of the social ills like addiction, violence, and a lack of proper education provide sufficient road blocks to improvement.  These overwhelming forces thus cause the afflicted community to surrender.  Mr. Galbraith continues:

People do not strive, generation after generation...against circumstances that are so constituted as to defeat them.  They accept.  Nor is such acceptance a sign of weakness of character.  Rather, it is a profoundly rational response.  Given the formidable hold of the equilibrium of poverty within which they live, accommodation is the optimal solution.    
Why would we expect people to fight what they think they can't change?  Yet, there are solutions to the problems.  The very first thing that needs to be done is to open the minds of the people to the proposition that life can be better than it is today.  In many parts of the world, this new motivation to improve has been spurred by trauma as poor people were displaced by persecution, wars, and natural disasters.  Obviously, using those as policy tools is repugnant.  Yet, we still have a significant and highly effective tool at our disposal.  Education is the key.

In light of this, Ogden School District has recently made a remarkable transformation in the results it delivers to its students.  For instance, Dee Elementary, where my daughters attended kindergarten, was the worst school in Utah as recently as 2011.  It had been in that unenviable spot for years.  Yet, Ogden School District leadership drafted a bold new plan to reinvent the district and the way it delivered an education to its students.  The results were profound as Dee Elementary launched from dead last in rankings to the middle of the pack of Utah schools in the space of just two years.        

As a member of the Multi-Cultural Commission, I connected Ogden School District with Latinos In Action to help establish a mentor program for hispanic youth.  This mentor system has created leadership opportunities for aspiring young people in the schools.  It has also created role models for the students that are mentored.  For those students participating in the program, college placement is 90%+ in a community that normally sees just a small percentage of its youth go to college.

These kinds of programs are helping people escape the poverty cycle in Ogden.  Showing people the opportunities that are available to them and then giving them a means to engage those opportunities are the key.

Yet, there is more we can do.  One of the aspects that holds Ogden's neighborhoods back from flourishing is the sheer volume of disadvantaged people.  Without more mentors and advantaged neighbors in close proximity to act as role models and provide opportunity for their less advantaged neighbors, the neighborhoods find themselves stuck in a status quo of impoverishment.  To overcome that inertia I will be making a proposal this next legislative session to address this problem and provide some affordable and creative solutions.

May we continue to work to break the cycle of poverty in our communities.  Through opening minds to the opportunities that are available; and, by providing the means to accept those opportunities, we build our neighborhoods and cities into better places.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Utah's Corrections Conundrum: Finding Better Solutions

During interim session in our Judiciary Committee, we heard a compelling presentation from the Pew Charitable Trusts regarding the state of Utah's corrections system.  We discussed how non-violent offenders (typically drug or property crimes) were receiving ever longer prison sentences for their crimes.

While on the face of it, it seems to make sense that people should pay for their crimes. Yet, at the same time, the corrections system itself is having the effect of making personal reform harder on those that are incarcerated.  Prison may lock up drug users, but it is poorly equipped today to break their addictions.

Interestingly, when door knocking my district while campaigning for office, I have often stumbled open felons who have shared their experience with me.  When I asked them what could be done to improve the system and promote better outcomes, almost unanimously, these folks have expressed the need for more drug treatment within our prisons.  I agreed with that sentiment then and it appears today we now have the data to support shifting our policy towards better treatment.

Here is the presentation we received during our committee:

As you can see, there are a lot of charts and information to digest. The bottom line is that our prison population is increasing at a rate faster than population growth.  The data suggests that our current policies are driving this increase.

Incarceration is just one part of our corrections system.  Yet, it seems to be the tool that is most readily relied upon.  I believe that there could be better results if we improved our efforts to curb addiction and address mental health issues among our inmate population.  I look forward to discussing this issue more with our Judiciary Committee as we move along toward the next General Session.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Uninequality: 10th Circuit Ruling on Same Sex Marriage

The 10th Circuit has sustained the Federal District Court's overturning of Utah's same-sex marriage ban.  Here is the court's written opinion.

In the Court's words:

We hold that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right to marry, establish a family, raise children, and enjoy the full protection of a state’s marital laws. A state may not deny the issuance of a marriage license to two persons, or refuse to recognize their marriage, based solely upon the sex of the persons in the marriage union.

Why are we here?   According to the plaintiffs:

Being excluded from the institution of marriage has caused Kitchen and Sbeity to undertake a burdensome process of drawing up wills and other legal documents to enable them to make important decisions for each other. Even with these protections, however, the couple cannot access various benefits of marriage, including the ability to file joint state tax returns and hold marital property. Sbeity also states that the legal documents the couple have obtained “do not and cannot provide the dignity, respect, and esteem” of marriage. The inability to “dignify [his] relationship” though marriage, Kitchen explains, communicates to him that his relationship with Sbeity is unworthy of “respect, equal treatment, and social recognition.”

I support Utah's appeal of this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The law cannot compel or conjure "dignity, respect, and esteem" in an individual.  These are earned attributes that transcend legal constructs.  I am afraid the plaintiffs will be disappointed in their expectations and unfulfilled by the results if the ban is ultimately overturned at the Supreme Court.

Since a society founded on the freedom of conscience cannot guarantee these earned characteristics to individuals, will the suppression of that freedom be next?  Will the honest voices of disapproval be silenced and marginalized?  Will an inquisition attempt to purge a dissenting ethos from our culture?

We shall see.