Archive for September, 2006

Utah Redistricting

September 25, 2006

The changes to Utah’s tax code was not the only big issue in which Huntsman was involved last week. In response to the likely approval for another Utah seat in the House of Representatives, The governor also unveiled a redistricting plan for Utah’s Representatives. The plan has been met with scorn by many in both parties; by the Republicans for conceding any sort of opportunity of success to the Democrats, and by the Democrats for restricting their potential opportunities.

Redistricting will always be a thorny political issue. In an ideal world, a state could simply be cut up into a grid to provide equal blocks uninfluenced by political considerations. The realities of geography and demographic make this impossible. I think it would be preferable for an independent, non-partisan organization to draw up the borders, so as to make them as fair as possible. Many of the European democracies have such permanent boards, resulting in fewer allegations of gerrymandering than in the U.S. Of course, this solution is not perfect either. Just because the people who would make up such a panel are not official representatives of either mainstream party would hardly mean that they are non-partisan or unbiased. No matter who is chosen, the participants will bring into play their own agendas and biases, whether subconsciously or deliberately. The idea of truly objective districting may be a fantasy.

Yet I’m not so cynical as to abandon the goal of honorable redistricting. Despite our human failings, we need to strive for the best we can, not give in to our worst instincts. And both of our mainstream parties have failed to do that time and again. Much has been made in recent years of the successful effort, spearheaded by Tom Delay, to redistrict Texas to produce more Republican seats and shore up the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. His defenders insist that they weren’t gerrymandering, but rather fixing the manipulative districting performed by their state’s Democrats while in power. Which side is right? I’ve no idea. Given the distinct lack of ethical standards on the part of Delay, I’m not disposed to put much faith in him. On the other hand, I’m sure Democrats have been perfectly willing to play the same game when they’ve had the upper hand. I’ve even heard tell that the two parties have conspired together in California to divvy up the districts in the last few rounds of redistricting, compromising to district in such a way as to make the seats currently held by each respective party “safer.” What a shameful way to betray the people.

There seems little question that the Utah redistricting which followed the 2000 election was an example of flagrant gerrymandering. The Utah Republican Party, having grown increasingly arrogant in their grip on political power within the state, was outraged by Jim Matheson’s victory. How dare a Democrat win a seat on the House of Representatives from us?! I’ve heard no logical explanation for the way the more liberal Salt Lake City was fragmented among the rest of the solidly Republican state, diluting the political power of the liberals. I can only conclude that the redistricting was consciously crafted for no more noble purpose than to remove Matheson from office and further consolidate Republican control.

The addition of the fourth congressional seat gives Utah the perfect opportunity to remedy the situation. But how best to accomplish this?

I gather from all of the news reports and interviews I heard on the subject that Huntsman had two main priorities: keeping counties as unified as possible (ie, not breaking counties apart into different districts), and being “fair” to the incumbents. The first of those considerations seems rather agreeable. Any given community is more likely to have shared concerns and interests. There will certainly not be unanimity of opinion on those concerns or interests, but they are more likely to common set of concerns. For example, rural southern Utah, with its unique environmental and demographic pressures, is likely to have a set of concerns and interests subtly different from that of rural northern Utah. Both are more different from the more suburban Wasatch Front area, which is different from the urban Salt Lake City area. It therefore makes sense to have the districts of the House of Representatives, specifically designed to be accountable to local communities, involve collections of discrete communities or regions which are similar in nature.

Of course, this is admittedly an oversimplification. No given region is entirely self-contained. Each flows into one another, with the differences between each being somewhat less than distinct. There will often be a point at which the division between a given community or region is arbitrary. There is also the issue of demographic fairness. In order to ensure that the population of each district is roughly equal, it may be necessary to place part of region with a high population density and add it to a sparcely populated region. Nevertheless, the principle is a valid one. As long as we make this principle our goal, we can accomodate the necessary deviations. The previous gerrymandering, which arbitrarily carved up Salt Lake County with little regard for community unity, gave no consideration to this principle. At first glance, Governor Huntsman’s interest in maintaining the integrity of the counties seems like a sensible step toward honoring that principle.

There have been grumblings among the state’s Democrats that this districting plan is unfair to them. Some suggest that the districting hinders the ability of the Democratic party to compete in any district outside of Matheson’s. The accusation likely bears merit. But those Democrats must also face the reality of their situation. The vast majority of Utah’s communities outside the Salt Lake Valley feel a greater affinity for the Republican party. While sad, It is right and proper for the districting to reflect that reality. Liberals must focus on changing that reality by using reason and persuasion to overcome the decades of brainwashing by conservatism. To resort to political manipulation would be neither effective nor just.

The second of Huntsman’s priorities (as I understand them) is to be “fair” to all incumbents. What is the purpose of helping protect incumbents? Incumbents hardly fight an uphill battle in getting reelected. It seems to me that the public is best served if congressmen are made more vulnerable to defeat in election. If incumbents are performing satisfactorily, the electorate will presumably vote their approval. If they work is not deemed adequate, should there be any barriers to the electorate selecting a more suitable representative? Would this not serve to keep congressmen more accountable to their constituents?

No, it is not the current slate of Representatives for whom the governor and the redistricting plan should be concerned. It is the public. I say this despite the fact that the current redistricting plan benefits my political interests personally. I welcome a change which will make the incumbent Democrat, Jim Matheson, my Representative. I would be hopeful that the district changes would allow Matheson, with fewer conservative constituents to placate, to unleash his inner liberal—or allow us to select a Representative who will. But I put principle over personal satisfaction. If it best serves the public and their communities to change the districts in a manner which doesn’t serve the interests of any of the incumbents, the public interest should take precedent. Let Governor Huntsman remember: We the people are not here to serve the needs of a political system established to serve the politicians. He, the congressmen, the rest of the state’s politicians and their parties are there to serve our political system, which is there to serve the people.

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You Can Hear Me Now!

September 25, 2006

Qwest finally got to us last night. The phones are on-line again. Hallelujah! I can now get back to business. All of you who have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to call, go ahead and give us a ring.

Telephone oblivion

September 24, 2006

What an aggravating week. I’ve spent a week now without phone service. We haven’t been able to call in or out since last Sunday (oddly enough, our DSL service is unimpaired). My wife does have a cell-phone, but we got it primarily as an emergency device, and so selected a plan with minimal regular minutes. Our usage is therefore rather restrained.

We called Qwest’s automated repair line and set up a repair order, but it was apparently lost somewhere. We set up another that was supposed to be fulfilled by 9:00 last night. When nobody showed by 9:30, we called the repair line again, only to be told we’d been bumped to this morning. It is now under an hour from noon, and still no sign of a serviceman.

I’m getting very seriously annoyed.

Utah “Tax Reform” III

September 21, 2006

Yesterday’s special session of the Utah legislature went about as expected. Having already obtained the support of the Republican party, Huntsman’s tax reform proposals were all passed. Nor is Huntsman through; in an interview on KCPW today, he acknowledged that the legislation passed was only a first step in his tax reform goals. Huntsman reaffirmed his interest in continuing to move toward a flatter tax, ultimately abandoning the “dual-track” system and moving closer to a true flat tax (also see the Deseret News).

Now that its done, we can only hope that Huntsman’s rational is correct. He has claimed multiple times that the tax cut will benefit the entire population—and education specifically—by stimulating economic growth, luring new employers into the state, increasing the tax base, and thereby increasing the funds available for education. The logic is dubious to me. “Trickle down” economics are far from proven. While such policies have, in the past, stimulated economic growth, the benefits have typically been enjoyed primarily by the wealthy.

Nevertheless, the change has been made, and given the governor’s track record of general good-will, I’m willing to give it a chance. I hope that the citizens of the state and informed observers pay careful attention to the consequences of the new tax over the next few years. If the scenario plays out as Governor Huntsman predicts—economic development which benefits the lower classes as well as corporate Utah and the wealthy, and increased funds for education and other vital government programs—I’m willing to give credit where credit is due. Lets permit further reform and “flattening” (flatification? flattizement? flatulence?)

But if the results are not what the Governor suggests‐if the available funds for education stagnate or diminish and the economic development benefits only the upper-class at the expense of the poor, then I hope the citizens and politicians will acknowledge the mistake, work to repeal his plan, and pursue a truly egalitarian tax reform.

My generally good impression of Huntsman is reinforced by the fact that Huntsman would ultimately like to pursue a tax system with few or no deductions—including the elimination of the deduction for charitable giving.

The state income tax change was not the only bill to come out of the special session. The legislature also passed a bill permitting Salt Lake County to raise sales taxes to pay for transportation projects. Some claim that property taxes, or some combination of sales and property, might have been a more appropriate way to obtain these funds. I haven’t studied this particular issue enough to say, and I’m not going to quibble. Developing a progressive, effective public transportation system is a good way to enhance the valley. The proposed improvements, with four East-West Trax spurs—including a rail to the airport—would make us a model for public transportation in the West, and would benefit the entire population. I’m perfectly willing to pay higher taxes for that.

Utah “Tax Reform” II

September 19, 2006

I need to make a clarification on my own suggestions for tax reform in my last post. Admittedly, neither proposal are directly targeted at helping the poor. Both are focused more on simplification of the tax code and minimizing loopholes.

The first proposal (eliminating tax breaks for charitable giving) is largely motivated by the principle of the matter. Charity should be done for its own sake, not because it benefits oneself. I wonder how often these tax loopholes are exploited in the same manner as the Leavitt family?

The dependent tax credit is certainly a complex issue. Yes, in many places it is the poor who tend to have larger families—though I doubt the correlation between poverty and large families is very strong in Utah. But virtually every time I’ve heard someone in Utah defend the tax credit for dependents (usually by middle-income or higher men), their primary argument in favor of the tax credit is the question “Do you have any idea how expensive it is to raise children these days?” The relative expense of child-rearing these days is irrelevant to the question. For the most part, particularly among these middle-class families, child-bearing is a conscious choice. If you (as I do) feel that raising a large family is rewarding, worthwhile, and even in some senses a moral obligation, fine. You are welcome to make that choice, and I rejoice in that choice. But it is not appropriate for those with the means to provide for that family to try to shift the costs of that choice onto the government. As each additional child increases the cost on the state (a place in school, police protection, etc), those who make the choice should bear a fair share of that cost.

I believe that a moderate progressive tax is generally beneficial to the poor. fewer tax breaks means fewer opportunities for the wealthy to reduce their tax responsibilities, and thus more funds are available to serve the public needs (education, emergency services, social safety nets, infrastructure, etc). The tax burden on the poor is minimized because of the nature of the progressive tax. And the system becomes simpler to implement and follow.

Again, this is a very simple account of what is a more complex issue. I’m not stating a definitive answer. Merely pointing to where I think we should focus our exploration of possible solutions to true tax reform.

Utah “Tax Reform”

September 18, 2006

Tomorrow begins the special session of the Utah legislature which Utah Governor Huntsman called for with the goal of implementing tax “reform,” primarily by introducing a flatter tax option for citizens to choose in place of the traditional system.

I’ve noted before that I have some respect for Governor Huntsman, and feel he is a fairly honorable politician. Because of this, I am more inclined to give this proposal the benefit of the doubt than I might have been had this proposal come from Governor Leavitt or Republicans in the legislature. And I am certainly not opposed to tax reform in principle. The current Utah tax code in unquestionably complex—is there any state or nation whose tax code is not complex?—and could use simplification. I’m confident that virtually everybody would prefer a tax code which is simple to understand and quick to calculate.

But I’m wary about the nature of a flat tax. The principles of progressive taxation are well-reasoned and well-supported by history. Who is it whom benefits most from the functions of government? Who benefits most from the development of infrastructure, from both internal and foreign security, for the protection of private property, from the management of natural and public resources, etc? One could easily argue that it is the wealthy. It is by the use of public services, the protection of private property, the permission to use natural and public resources, etc, that the wealthy accumulate and maintain their wealth. Were it not for the effective functioning of government, it would be more difficult for the wealthy to obtain their wealth. As they derive the greatest economic benefit from the government, why should it be considered unreasonable for them to make the greatest contribution?

Jim Wallis of the Sojourners has frequently in books and speeches made the point that budgets are moral documents. They represent what we believe in, what values we hold. He makes a compelling case. I must admit that it is one with which I’m not entirely comfortable, as it seems to lead down the slippery slope of legislating morality. But is a very interesting concept, and one which seems very much in line with the conservative majority in Utah. One of the important moral principles which we are taught by the Lord is “of him unto whom much is given much is required (D&C 82:3).” Why should we not expect or require more of those to whom much has been given? After all, the poor require a far greater percentage of their income for basic needs. Far less of their income is available for other expenses, such as taxation. The percentage of the income of the wealthy which is needed for basic sustenance is far smaller, and thus they have more available to help pay for the services from which they derive so much benefit.

The Right might wish to build straw men in response to these claims. But any such attack would be without merit. I’m not suggesting a widescale escalation of progressive taxation, any dramatic shifting of the responsibility for financing government to the rich. The current rates seem essentially productive and fair. Nor is there much substantiation to the grim warnings about economic doom in the wake of progressive taxation. We can look back at the history of the U.S. and see that the nation has prospered most since adopting a progressive tax. Such a tax has permitted the benefits of economic growth to truly raise all boats, instead of merely raising all yachts.

So what are the merits of a flatter tax? All logic and evidence suggests that they benefit only those who need the least help; the wealthy. As the Salt Lake Tribune article notes, “The Utah Tax Commission analysts say only about 4 percent to 5 percent of the richest Utahns will benefit from the flat tax.” Why push forward tax reform—in a special session, no less—which will help only a small handful (comparatively) of people?

The potential loser is, as usual, our children. State funding for public education in Utah comes primarily from income taxes, and so the $76 million reduction in revenues will pinch the education budget, already spread thin by our large population of students. If budgets are moral documents, what is a greater priority: more tax breaks for the rich, or preparing our children to be successful and productive citizens?

If we want to try reform, here are a couple of ideas:

Remove the tax break for charitable giving. The Lord wants us to give tithes and offerings not because it will reduce our tax load, but because we have faith in his blessings and gratitude for all he has given us. If charitable giving goes down because their tax breaks are taken away, I guess we’ll be able to tell the sheep from the goats.

Why do families in Utah get tax breaks for having children? Each additional child puts that much more of a demand on our educational system. Why then should they pay less? My wife and I hope that we can someday have a large family. But that is a conscious choice we hope to make, and one which we understand will entail sacrifices. We recognize that every child we will have will consume more private and public resources. The government should not be falsely reducing the cost of those public resources, particularly for those who have the ability to pay for those resources.

I hope that this is a sincere effort by the governor to establish a simpler tax code which will truly benefit all Utahns. But I can’t help being cynical when it comes to flat tax proposals and to special legislative sessions. It sounds too much like an attempt to railroad a proposal which doesn’t bear up under slow, careful analysis. I’ll be watching the proceedings carefully to see which is the case.

A Chillingly Gray Day in September

September 15, 2006

For the benefit of all who may have heard and might be concerned, I was not at the library when the bomb exploded, and am fine.

For those who had not heard anything and am wondering what in the world I’m talking about, the library was damaged by a small pipe-bomb today.

(and for those of you who do not know me and do not care, sorry. This is going to be one of those boring, personal posts. Have a good day)

I worked my usual shift at the library this morning, going home at 1:00. When I got home, Rob Miller asked me to run an errand to Bountiful for him, and I agreed to do it. I was on my way home from that errand, driving along in SLC at about 3:15, when KCPW reported the breaking news that the library had exploded in the Main Library (where I work). My heart immediately leapt in my chest. When the reporter declared that the bomb had gone off on the third floor, I had to pull over. I work on the third floor.

My thoughts immediately went to my coworkers. Were they okay? I couldn’t think of anything else for a few moments. Fortunately it was reported that there were no injuries. The bomb was reportedly a small, homemade, pipe bomb, and the damage was minimal. I took a few minutes to let my heart stop fluttering before resuming my trip home.

It had already been a traumatic day for the third floor. We learned first thing this morning that a recent coworker, Jane, had just died of cancer. She had been diagnosed only a couple of months before, and the disease progressed precipitously. It cast a pall over the day for everyone. Jane was a very gentle, kind woman, and one not yet old. With chilling swiftness, she has now been taken from us.

This is the first time someone whom I know personally had died unexpectedly. I’ve experienced the demise of aged family members and an uncle stricken with aids for a dozen years or so. But those people had been on that path for some time. I had been expecting the news that they had finally moved on. But this coworker had appeared full of life in her own gentle way only a couple of months ago, and had shown no apparent signs of trouble up until the day she was diagnosed. It is a strange, troubling experience.

While it is troubling, and I was certainly saddened by the news of her tragic illness, I’m not sure I can say I’m saddened by her death. She may not have experienced the full three to six months predicted by her doctors, but that just means she was relieved of her suffering that much sooner.

All in all, the brooding, stormy day seems rather appropriate for the day. I just hope the evening is less eventful.

9/11 Anniversary Overload

September 11, 2006

Do we really need all these retrospectives and memorials and tributes to 9/11?

9/11 is perhaps the most pivotal moment of our time. More than perhaps any other event of my lifetime (with the possible exception of the fall of Communism in Europe), it has changed the course of history. Because of 9/11—or, more pointed, because of the reaction (overreaction?) by our government to 9/11—we are engaged in two international wars under the umbrella of one overarching phantom war; there is an ongoing reevaluation of civil liberties and of the balance of powers in our federal government; the issue of illegal immigration is coming to a head; and the federal debt is ballooning due to the response to 9/11 in ways which may lead to grave consequences in the years to come. I hear discussions of many of these consequences from many different media sources (NPR, conservative talk radio, Air America Radio, PBS’s various newsshows and punditry, the BBC.com and other news websites, the blogosphere) multiple times every single day. Rarely does a day pass without some legitimate news item which can be linked (either directly or via this administration’s response) to 9/11.

What point, then, is there to turning every single radio show, tv report, news article, or blog today—and over the past week, for that matter—into a memorial, retrospective, or tribute? Don’t we hear enough already? Is there really anything to explore about 9/11 itself which we haven’t already see or considered?

I suppose it is inevitable to look back on an anniversary like this. But I wish there was some way to stem the media and political deluge. Particularly when most of it seems so meaningless. It would be one thing if it involved a real dialogue and a search for some new perspective or answer. But the vast majority of it is just cloyingly saccharine tearjerking, or pseudo-patriotic warmongering. Those I can do just fine without, thank-you.

Moving Up in The World, One Small Step at a Time

September 8, 2006

Dear me. Weeks have passed without any blog entry. How could I have been so negligent? Many things have been happening, and I suppose I lost track of time.

A couple nice developments on the personal front. I got a promotion! As of Monday, I’m an assistant librarian. I get a fairly significant raise, but unfortunately no more hours. But it is a very nice step for me. As nice as the raise is, I’m more gratified by the validation I got from my co-workers. When this position became available, most of them went out of their way to encourage me to take it, expressing their appreciation for my efforts thus far. I get the impression that some also spoke up for me to management. No doubt, I’m honored to be shown such kindness by those for whom I have great respect!

I’ve had a promotion of a sense in my political efforts as well. Due to some conflicts with his previous choice, Rob asked me to be his campaign manager. I’m honored that he has such faith in me, despite my lack of experience (or perhaps it says more about the quality of the recruiting pool for liberal operatives than it does about me&helllip;). I accepted and am now diligently working to write content and design materials for his campaign, as well as to&helllip;well, do whatever it is that campaign managers do. Hopefully I’ll figure it out soon. And while I do want to succeed in the admittedly daunting challenge of helping a Democrat win an election in staunchly conservative Davis county and help build the liberal political network in Utah, I’m also looking at this as an opportunity to add some nice experience to my resume and to network among people I wouldn’t likely have access to otherwise.

No, neither are earth-shattering developments. But in my life, I gotta savor the small victories and modest progress.

I’ve a few pieces I’ll be posting soon, and will hopefully do a better job of keeping the fresh, scintillating content which the hundreds upon hundreds (okay, fine; ones upon ones) of you look forward to on this blog.