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Friday, September 30, 2005

Tax Reform Discussions

By Curtis S. Bramble
District 16

The Standard Examiner reported a group in Ogden will host a tax reform discussion, because none of the official town meetings are scheduled for their city. The Tax Reform Task Force will hold public hearings at various locations but it’s nearly impossible to hold them in every city and town in the state.

Scott Schwebke got it right when he reported I applauded the Ogden group for organizing their own public meeting.

There will be six public hearings in October (we’ve already held one in Logan), but we need far more than six discussions on tax reform in Utah. There should be scores of meetings and thousands of conversations. Citizens should hold meetings in every part of the state. We should be talking about this in Rotary Clubs, in the classroom, at the water cooler and the dinner table. Every group and individual with an interest should be actively engaged in the discussion.

Then, when you’ve reached your best conclusion, you should communicate your viewpoint to your senators and representatives, so it can be converted into action at the legislature. That’s the American system.

I hope that Ogden will not be our only city to organize its own tax reform discussion. If Utahns are good at anything, it is finding solutions and making a difference through spontaneous community organization. That’s a local tradition we should treasure and cultivate.

If I can help, please let me know.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

CHINA – Part II

By John L. Valentine
Senate President
District 14

Karen and I are back in the U.S. now, recovering from jet lag and thinking about our stay in the Middle Kingdom. Many of the blessings we take for granted here at home are real challenges in Beijing. A free press is one example.

Our delegation stayed in an International Hotel in Beijing. The “international” designation was significant because it meant that we could watch cable news programs, such as CNN and the BBC, which would otherwise be blocked. The Chinese public is not permitted to receive these broadcasts.

When we asked about this situation we were told that the media in China is "competitive." Upon further inquiry it appears that the media is no longer totally controlled by the Communist Party, even though there is ample evidence of censorship. Censorship comes in terms of controlling content and controlling who is allowed to release the news. We learned of journalists who were fined and jailed for being incorrect in their treatment of Party concerns.

Something published in the Beijing News (as quoted in China Daily - the national English language paper) caught my eye:
Some local officials have set up a special organ to control the media’s negative coverage of their regions and departments in recent years. To reduce the coverage alleged to compromise their achievements or image, they usually refuse interviews demanded by the media and interfere with the media's operations through any means available . . . ."
I hope those words don’t sound familiar here … or at least not descriptive of the Utah Senate. However, we should be aware that human nature, and the dynamics of power, are fairly universal. In our case, we are fortunate to have cultural, political and legal protections such as the First Amendment and Utah’s constitutional Declaration of Rights.

The news media doesn’t get it right 100 percent of the time, but they do provide a service that is vital to good government.

You can find another interesting dynamic in the streets of large cities in China. Pirate copies of American CDs and DVDs are everywhere – mostly titles that are outlawed in the state-sanctioned markets. It’s illegal to purchase most of these movies, or watch them in theaters, yet these forbidden materials represent 85% of all the DVDs and CDs in circulation in China, according to a source in the Asia-Pacific Motion Picture Association of America.

As I mentioned in my last blog, many young people of China, especially in the larger cites are achieving a glimpse of the world through the eyes of the internet. Peking University is sometimes called the "Harvard of the East" (sorry Yale). Senior high school students are required to take the National Uniform State College Entrance Exam; the top scores are invited to study in Peking. Political Science and Diplomacy is the most popular course of study.

We had the opportunity to talk with some of these students. They were acutely conscious of their dependence on the internet for access to information about the world. You can imagine they were very concerned when vital information sites were blocked by the central government. It was apparent that they were sometimes skeptical of what they saw in the official version of the news and frustrated at their inability to find full and complete information.

When asked about the war in Iraq, they called it "very confused." They observed that the situation in Iraq "needed a solution. Terrorism is everyone’s problem." They were also concerned that their personal E-mails were being intercepted and read by government officials.

My general impression is that there is more liberty in the People's Republic of China now than there has been in a long time, but they are miles from having a vibrant living democracy to match and mitigate their economic growth.

China is a truly beautiful country, with a long history that is both heartbreaking and inspiring. I was honored by their hospitality and look forward to increased friendship between the people of both of our nations.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Republican Women's PAC

By Carlene Walker
Senator, District 8

A woman’s perspective is unique and vital to the policy-making process. Too many women, however, are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to political experience and a strong professional network that can be essential to winning an election. This is especially true among those of us who have devoted years – even decades - to raising a family and managing our homes.

We may have a solution. If you are a woman – young or older - and you have contemplated making an impact in the political world, then you should contact the Utah Republican Women’s Political Action Committee (PAC).

This organization is not only for those about to run for office, but for every one of you who think you might someday like to run. We want to start adding to your abilities now; to get you involved at whatever level your time allows. We are building a farm team - a stellar array of capable women who are prepared to serve. We want to help educate, mentor and prepare. When the time comes for you to run, we will be there to give you the support you will need.

I wish an organization like this existed when I ran for office in 2000. It didn’t, so I helped start this one.

Interested? Read the write up in today’s Utah Policy Daily, then give me a call.

Sincerely,

Carlene

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

China

By Senate President John Valentine
District 14

I am writing these words as Karen and I wait for a bus to take us to the airport for our long flight back to the U.S. We have been visitors in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the past several days in a forum for state senate presidents.

China.... More specifically: What is China today and how will changes there impact Utah? The vastness, beauty, intricacy and diversity of its history, land and people – and the cultural difference between west and east – is so large, that it is hard to get ones arms around this issue. You risk making errors in judgment. Over the past few days I have begun to hypothesize that there are really two very different Chinas today; an economic China and a political China.

The Economic China is focused on profit and innovation. It is excited, vibrant and changing at breakneck speed. It appears to be what Hong Kong was before its takeover by the PRC. Economic growth, measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has exceeded 9% each year for the past ten years. Although that official statistic is probably suspect, China is now the 6th largest economy in the world. In 1997 we wondered what would happen when China took over Hong Kong. In fact, it appears that the opposite has occurred; Hong Kong is taking over China.

The Political China has changed at a much slower pace since the days of 1989 and Tiananmen Square. Some personal freedoms exist, but China is still non democratic and at times repressive. PRC leaders seem to be focused on staying in power; they are desperately “riding the back of the tiger” as the local saying goes.

In China today, a person can find his or her own job, move around the country freely and even protest the actions of its government. (Protests have increased such that there were approximately 74,000 protests of one sort or another in 2004.) Access to information is more open, although the press is still censured. (More about this in a later blog). The internet is available and has become a major source of information for the young, although sites deemed politically unacceptable, such as Amnesty International, are blocked. (I wonder if the Senate Site is blocked...?)

The PRC seem to be very pragmatic about their role in the world and tend to downplay international conflicts to maintain their robust economic activity, evidenced in their recent efforts at the Six Party Talks involving nuclear arms in North Korea. The Chinese have become the largest trading partner with the rest of Asia, surpassing the United States.

PRC policies have not been so pragmatic when it comes to issues of national honor; specifically in dealings with the United States, Japan and Taiwan. Decisions in these areas are not driven so much by economic factors as they are by nationalism and a desire for the greatest good of emerging China. It seems to be a common belief among those whom with we spoke, that any national leader who would allow legal independence for Taiwan, would be ousted from power. It is a very volatile political issue.

Another volatile issue is the growing class differences, especially between high party officials and the “People”. It is especially evident in the rural part of China, where economic vibrancy has not yet taken hold. Intellectual property rights are another big challenge with rampant CD and DVD piracy.

We met with a number of people with differing opinions on the state of their country. I won’t use many names because of the potential need to protect them from the political side of China, but their thoughts were fascinating and enlightening. Two that I can name are He Yafei, Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (PRC) and Craig Allen, Minister-Counselor for Commercial Affairs at the US Embassy. Both of them gave outstanding presentations.

Mr Yafei emphasized the partner relationship between China and the US. He spoke of the recent meeting between his top officials and President Bush which occurred on the 13th of September in Washington and announced that President Bush has made a commitment to visit the PRC in November. He spoke of the need to cooperate in the area of terrorism and was particularly harsh on the actions of “radical Islam.”

In a Q&A period following his presentation, he lamented, “Our young people are listening to the same music and therefore the same voices as are the western youth.” He told us, “We are in this together.”

We need to engage with China in the coming decades. Our challenge– as a state and nation - is to consider that there are at least two Chinas today and tailor our policies with that dynamic in mind. We can not contain China economically. We need to innovate and focus on shared goals and strengths.

Next time: A few thoughts on the Freedom of the Press in China.

Run For Congress?

By Curtis S. Bramble
District 16

Tommy Burr, of the Salt Lake Tribune, published an article today about my possible bid for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District. You can read it here.

The truth is
1. I haven’t decided yet whether to run or not.
2. I am seriously considering it.
There are many things on my plate right now, not the least of which are the efforts of our Tax Reform Task Force and the well being of my family. This is also an intense time of the year for CPAs (October 15 is the filing deadline for those who required an extension last April), and I’m up to my ears in tax work.

My wife and I plan to make the decision sometime between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. We want to make the right decision and we're not going to rush it. When there is an announcement to be made, however, readers of the Senate Site will be among the first to know.

Thank you for your interest – the strong encouragement and support of so many friends has been both humbling and gratifying.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Tort Reform

By Senator Dave Thomas
District 18

We have a problem with “lawsuit abuse” in Utah, but you wouldn’t know it if you talked to the Utah Trial Lawyers Association. I am the Chairman of the Judiciary Interim Committee and I recently had representatives of the Trial Lawyers appear before my committee. To a man, each stated that there was no problem with the Utah tort system. In fact, I was told that a frivolous lawsuit had not been filed in Utah in many years. Do you believe that? I don’t. Here's why.

In 2002, according to one actuarial study, the United States civil liability system cost $246 billion dollars or around 2.2% of the United States GDP. In 1950, the cost of our tort system was approximately $12 per person per year. Today, its $845 per person per year. More specifically, medical malpractice claim costs were $5 per person per year in 1975, while today they are $91.

Health insurance premiums rose 11.2% in 2004; the year before, it was a 13.9% increase. This while our rate of inflation has been at around 2.3%. We can see that premiums are rising at a rate 5 times greater than inflation. This is killing our health care industry.

What is causing the sky rocketing increases in premiums? Business says its litigation costs. Trial attorneys say its greedy insurance companies. Let’s explore who is right.

Since 1990, the direct insurance premiums written have gone up by $2 billion dollars or about 28%. The direct loss payout during the same time frame has gone up by $3 billion dollars or about 56%. No rocket scientist is needed to do the math -- lawsuit payouts are outdistancing premiums two to one. To be fair, the insurance industry continues to make a healthy profit, but the increase in insurance premiums is not due to insurance company greed. The numbers point to something else. I believe it is our tort system.

Utah’s senior Senator, Orrin Hatch, certainly thinks it is too. On April 6, 2004, on the floor of the United States Senate, Senator Hatch talked about, “the exploding medical liability and litigation crisis.”

Let me quote from Senator Hatch’s eloquent speech:
Many physician groups are no longer able to be “on call” for hospital emergency departments. As medical care to trauma victims, especially children, is by its nature “high risk,” many doctors can no longer afford to treat pediatric trauma patients. The problem is also acute for women who need obstetrical and gynecological care because OB/GYN is among the top three specialties with the highest professional liability insurance premiums. This has led to many doctors leaving practice and to a shortage of doctors in many states, including my home state of Utah.

For example, Utah physician Dr. Catherine Wheeler would have to deliver more than 60 babies each year just to pay for her medical liability insurance, which is over $70,000. Although she works 80 hours per week, after she pays her malpractice premiums and other costs, she takes home money for only 2 ½ months of the year.

The Utah Medical Association data show that medical liability insurance premiums continue to increase rapidly, creating pressure on doctors to restrict service in Utah. In 2002, there was a 30% rise, last year premiums rose 20% and this year they are projected to increase 15% in Utah.

Studies by both the Utah Medical Association and the Utah Chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists underscore the problem in my state. Utah Medical Association data show that over half of family practitioners in Utah have already given up obstetrical services or never practiced obstetrics. Of the remaining practitioners who still deliver babies, nearly one third say they plan to stop providing OB services within the next decade, most within 5 years. A Utah Obstetrics Survey found that 15 of the 106 members polled had already stopped practicing obstetrics and 21 of the remaining 91 plan to stop within 5 years.

These changes in practice, such as retiring, relocating or dropping obstetrics because of the medical liability reform crisis, leaves almost 1,500 pregnant Utahns without OB/GYN care.
The problem appears to be getting worse. If you don’t think so, consider the $145 million punitive damage award made in a Utah court in State Farm v. Campbell, which would have been ultimately paid for by increased premiums to Utah policyholders.

The Trial Lawyers have insisted that we don’t need a legislative fix because we already have laws in place which prohibit frivolous lawsuits. Of course, it was then that I was told that no one has used these laws because no one in Utah has filed a frivolous lawsuit in many years. So I suppose it all depends upon your defination of frivolous lawsuit – is a claim frivolous if the plaintiff has a 1% chance of winning? What about a 2% chance? 5%? 20%? Given the fact that the Buckeye Institute found that 70 - 80% of defendants prevail in these lawsuits, is it fair to force defendants to incur litigation costs where plaintiffs’ file a claim with only a 20% probability of winning? What does that do to insurance premium costs?

Sometimes we forget that the concept of insurance is to spread the risk among many so that injured persons can be made whole. The system hardly works if someone causes an injury and then does not have the assets to make the injured party whole. By everyone paying into an insurer, the insured protects himself against losing his assets and it protects the injured from having no one to make her whole. So what happens to the system where the premiums become so high, no one is insured? We talk about societal ills – the tort system is sick. If the participants cannot cure the patient, then the Legislature, as doctor, must do it.

So what should Utah be thinking about doing?

Two ideas that the Judiciary Committee have begun to discuss are (1) Loser Pays, and (2) caps on noneconomic damages.

Last year, the United States Health and Human Services Department released a report showing that in states with caps on noneconomic damages premiums increased at half the rate as other states without caps. In California, their Medical Injury Compensation Act has been in place since the 1970s and reports that increases in premiums are at 20% of the national rate. 23 States have enacted caps on noneconomic damages, but Utah is not one of them.

I have heard from plaintiffs’ attorneys who believe that such caps would hamper injured persons from receiving fair compensation for their injuries. But lets understand two things: these are noneconomic pain and suffering damages, which are subjective to begin with, and second, by enacting caps, we can make insurance more affordable for all. Is it better to preserve the option of a multi-million dollar judgment for one person or to ensure medical coverage for a million people – which is the greater public good?

With respect to Loser Pays, where the losing party pays the winning party’s reasonable attorney fees, every attorney that I have talked to is opposed to it – plaintiffs counsel, defense attorneys, all. Why all the fear? The rest of the world has had loser pays for centuries. Loser Pays is inherently fair. Why is it that attorneys claim the importance of making the injured party whole for everything, but attorney fees. What is so mystical about attorney fees? Or is it that Loser Pays makes attorneys really do the due diligence that they are supposed to be doing, but don’t do. Loser Pays makes everyone take a good strong second look at the claim. How many attorneys would be including 25 claims in a simple contract dispute if Loser Pays was the law in Utah? How much time and money would be saved in judicial resources, in discovery costs?

For every story about the person who will not assert a claim because of fear over paying the other party’s attorney fees, let me share with you a real life story of those who are injured without it. Once upon a time in my community, there was a couple who saved for years to build their dream home. Finally the time had come, all of the hard work paid off. They bought an empty lot in an established subdivision and pulled a building permit. As they built their dream home, the neighbor next to them was upset that they were building in and blocking his view of the mountains. How dare they build in that empty lot and obstruct his view. So he sued them. A couple of years later and thousands of dollars, the couple with the dream house won. Problem is, that the cost of paying their attorney took all of their money and more. They had to sell their dream house to pay the legal costs. Where is their justice? As I said, for every one person who decides that Loser Pays will dissuade them from filing a meritorious lawsuit, there are dozens who will be made whole by Loser Pays. In the process, the number of tort claims will go down – as they did in Illinois where tort reform saved $150 million and decreased case loads by 30%.

It is time to look seriously at beneficial tort reform in Utah.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Legacy Parkway

By Sheldon Killpack
District 21

Finally, a "viable" alternate route is on the horizon for Davis County and Northern Utah. The Governor's Office and the Legislative working group were able to strike an agreement with the people suing over Legacy Highway, which will allow us to move forward with the project, pending final approval of legislation in a special session. If all goes well, tires will roll on the "parkway" in 2008.

Frankly, we don't like much of the agreement or the process (which is probably why they call it a compromise) - but we can live with it. Opening that additional north-south route will immediately reduce traffic on I-15 in Davis County by 30 percent.

Main features of the "Agreement in Principle" include the following:
  • No further litigation
  • A speed limit of 55 mph
  • Quiet pavement (rubberized asphalt instead of cement)
  • No billboards
  • No big trucks - except for emergencies
  • Walking Trails to the east and west - subject to further approval
  • Width limited to four lanes
  • Additional features to maximize environmental quality
  • Mediation provisions to help avoid costly legal train wrecks in the
  • future
  • $2.5 million to study Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail Transit options
  • All provisions in the final settlement will terminate no later than 2020
The most significant criticism of the compromise agreement to date is regarding the prohibition of large trucks on the Parkway until 2020. Some claim that this will mean an increase in cost to the consumer. I beg to differ with this argument. Currently, when I-15 shuts down commerce has absolutely NO viable alternate route - trucking comes to a complete stop. With this agreement, trucks will move onto Legacy during during accidents, disasters, or road construction. There will be a way north, come heck or high water. And this is Utah, so either one is part of our vocabulary.

If you want more detail you can view a copy of the Agreement in Principle. Other information available on UDOT's site:
Map of Legacy Parkway Agreement

Legacy Parkway and Preserve Web site
Special thanks to UDOT, the Governor's team and the Legislative Working
Group for their blood, sweat, and tears expended to make this agreement a
reality.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Mansell Leads Effort to Assist Katrina Survivors

Today's Utah Policy Daily reported on Al Mansell's work to restore communities hit by Hurricane Katrina.


Senator Al Mansell is Assisting Relief Efforts

By Hayden Hill

After being back only a month from assisting tsunami relief efforts in Khao Lak, Thailand, Sen. Al Mansell is once again rallying disaster relief support – this time for hurricane Katrina victims. As president of the National Realtors Association, the former Utah Senate president is using the resources of Realtors nationwide in providing funds, information and manpower to the devastated Gulf Coast areas.

With a single email message, Mansell’s organization obtained 5,906 donations totaling $3.4 million in relief funds – and anticipates raising several million more in the next few weeks. The Realtors have earmarked every dime for individuals affected by Katrina with “not one cent spent on administrative costs,” Mansell said. He also notes that the vast majority of donations were in hundred dollar increments from individual members.

“[The funds] are being used to assist in rebuilding lives,” he says. “The money goes directly to the state associations so that at the state level they can decide the most worthy recipients.”

Another large part of the Realtors’ efforts is providing listings of vacant houses, apartment buildings, warehouses and even parking lots that can be used as temporary shelters. Directly following the storm, FEMA contacted the Realtors for an inventory of available housing in the surrounding five states. The Realtors’ response to the request was so staggering that the original Web site set up to house the information was soon overwhelmed with the profusion of listings.

The Red Cross also petitioned the Realtors help in the form of direct labor. Mansell received a call last week asking for 250 volunteers to go to the heart of the disaster and assist directly with relief efforts. The volunteers will bring their own food, water and gasoline and are told to expect to be gone anywhere between seven and fourteen days. “I know the response will be excellent,” says Mansell. “We’ll get more than 250.”

Mansell is visiting Mobile, Ala. and Jackson, Miss. this week to meet with state and local officials and work out exactly how the Realtors can best help. “We want to make sure they have the necessary staff. Whatever they need – the national association is willing to pay for it and make sure they’re taken care of.”

The National Association of Realtors, with around 1.2 million members, is the largest trade association in the country. “I don’t think people realize it, but Realtors are invested in the concept of communities,” says Mansell. “The better the community, the better the lifestyle. That’s why were down here, to rebuild people’s way of life.”

--------------------------------------------
Read the NAR Press Release.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Politicians Deserve Respect? [] Yes [] No [] Maybe?

Wow. Here' s a headline you don't see often enough: Most Politicians Honest and Deserve Respect. You can read Frank Pignanelli and LaVarr Webb's column at http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,605153275,00.html

Speaking of Mr. Webb, here's an interesting excerpt from today's Utah Policy Daily:

Bramble Weighing Options

Sen. Curt Bramble is still considering whether to run for Congress in the 3rd District. If he jumps in, it would become a very interesting three-way race for the GOP nomination among incumbent Rep. Chris Cannon, businessman John Jacob, and Bramble. Jacob’s entry into the race has not deterred Bramble, but perhaps has accelerated his timing on making a decision. In 2006, Bramble will be in the middle of his four-year Senate term, so he could retain his Senate seat should he lose. In a discussion last week, Bramble seemed to be weighing his options carefully, but appeared very interested in the race.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Gas Tax Repeal?

Utah State Representative John Dougall made some informative comments today about temporarily repealing the state's gas tax. Check them out and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Golf Tournament

This little blurb was published in this morning's Utah Policy Daily.

State GOP Senators Raise $50,000
Utah’s GOP Senate majority raised about $50,000 Tuesday during its 5th annual golf tournament at Thanksgiving Point. About 34 foursomes competed for $1,700 in cash prizes. The tourney is a fundraiser for GOP candidates, but Sen. Dan Eastman said part of this year’s proceeds (approximately $5,000 to $6,000) will go directly to hurricane Katrina evacuees living at Camp Williams.

With a senator stationed at every hole, tourney participants could talk golf or politics or whatever burning issues were on their minds. And just to show that Republicans know how to have fun, a light-hearted auction was held at the tournament’s end. With Eastman as auctioneer, top bidder/lobbyist Doug Foxley paid $500 to see what is on Sen. Pete Knudson’s mind - literally. Knudson was a good sport and uncovered his bald head beneath the shag.

[Note: 100% of the proceeds from Senator Knudson's auction will go to aid Katrina evacuees in Utah.]

Monday, September 05, 2005

Summer Vacation

Wonder what your elected reps did during summer vacation? Don't miss Pignanelli and Webb's column in yesterday's D-News. Here's the report on our own Senator Bramble:
"My fellow senators wanted to enhance my interpersonal skills and were kind enough to sponsor my participation in a retreat to find and get in touch with my inner feminine persona. Well, I found her and argued with her for three days straight. Now I think I'm ready to run for Congress."

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Camp Williams

By John L. Valentine
District 14

Tonight my wife, Karen, and I were invited to meet with Katrina Evacuees from New Orleans, temporarily housed at Camp Williams. We were honored to attend an interfaith church meeting - which was originally scheduled for the chapel at the Army Camp, but was changed to the Readiness Center, due to the size of the crowd. It was standing room only; in fact, many local attendees gave up their seats for our out of state visitors.

The service was rousing and inspirational in the best of America’s revival tradition. Karen and I quickly warmed to the occasion and enjoyed the music and active participation of the meeting. Lieutenant Governor Gary Herbert, Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, myself and others, were happy to greet and welcome our new friends.

I shared my feelings of friendship with the crowd and a little understanding of their plight. My son and his family were attending medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans and escaped just before the hurricane hit. He, his wife, and their two-year old child ended up in the Northern Louisiana city of Monroe with a few items of clothing and not much else.

The meeting lasted a couple of hours and I felt re-energized. Following the services we were able to visit with a number of people who thanked us for taking time to worship with them. Being President of the Senate has its burdens, but events like tonight make them seem very light.

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