Newsletter: Week 1 (January 28- February 1, 2013)
The 2013 Legislative session has begun. We got off to a good start, in spite of a few challenges with the weather.
Before I give you an update on our first week, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to represent you in the Senate. I appreciate your trust and look forward to your input and any thoughts on the legislation we will be considering this session.
Remember, this week holds my first two Town Hall Meetings on Tuesday, February 5th and Thursday, February 7th @ 7pm and the Sandy Library. I hope to see you there!
Although things happening on the national level are causing a great deal of frustration, there are many many good things happening in Utah. A recent survey done by Zions Bank shows that Utah residents are much more optimistic than the rest of the country. We have reason to be optimistic. Our state economy is now the second strongest in the nation. Our current growth rate is 2.9%. Our jobless rate is expected to decrease even more this coming year and our housing markets are seeing an upward trend. This stability did not come about haphazardly. It comes from hard work and careful planning priorities that protect families; promote business and education; and saves for the future. I am glad that together we are part of this great state.
Last Monday morning we began the session with our opening ceremony. We swore in the new senators, had a beautiful choir number performed by the American Leadership Academy and presentation of the Colors. In my new role as Senate President, I gave the opening remarks (here is the link if you would like to see the day's Journal, my remarks begin on the bottom of page 5: http://le.utah.gov/~2013/journal/s0001.pdf) and then we set out to work. First we adopt our working rules then we read in bills to be sent on to committees. Later that afternoon, we heard from the Chief Justice, Matthew Durrant.
Several standing committees also met that day. In the Education Committee, Senator Thatcher discussed his education transparency bill. This bill would make financial information from school districts easily available and comparable on the state public finance website.
By the second day, committee work had begun in full swing. I sit on the Executive Appropriations Committee, the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee, the Senate Education Committee and the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee. Also, I am the chair of the Legislative Management Committee and the Senate Legislative Expense Oversight Committee. On the floor last Tuesday we had two bills that dealt with data collection. SB12, sponsored by Senator VanTassell protects information collected by UTA about who is riding where. Senator Reid's bill, SB 20 deals with tightening the security level of data stored by the state. This bill is a response to the data breach last year that compromised the health information of 780,000 Utahans, and cost our state hundreds of thousands of dollars. It directs the Utah State Department of Technology Services to adhere as closely as possible to government and industry best practices for security.
As the ability to collect and share data increases, we will need to do all that we can to protect sensitive personal information.
On Wednesday, one of the bills we voted for on the floor was Senator Stephenson's SB 34 Special Elections Date for Ballot Propositions. This bill would make it so that special elections dealing with tax increases would be allowed only on regular elections dates. This will make public awareness and participation easier and add to the transparency of the issues. Another bill on that day's calendar was SB 19, sponsored by Senator Van Tassell. It dealt with safety issues when truck drivers use cell phones. Also that morning we took a moment to honor Utah Highway Patrol trooper Aaron Beesley who fell to his death during a rescue attempt. I am grateful for the unselfishness that our Troopers portray and am grateful to them and their families for the sacrifices they make.
On Wednesday evening, we met in the House chamber to hear the Governor's State of the State address.
Thursday and Friday were full of committee meetings and floor time. Each of the appropriation subcommittees met and most of the standing committees met. On Thursday, Congressman Matheson addressed us and on Friday we heard from Congressman Chris Stewart.
On Friday, there were a lot of people seeing red. Not because they were angry, but because nearly everyone was wearing red in support of Heart Month, sponsored by the American Heart Association. (Senator VanTassell forgot to wear something red, but made up for it by spraying his hair red!!--What a good sport.)
Friday on the floor we passed HJR6. I would like to clarify this bill a bit. There have been some news reports claiming that by passing this legislation we are giving ourselves a raise. That is not the case. It is not a raise, for most legislators it will be a wash. For years, the Legislature has been paid the bulk of their compensation through housing or food stipends. This bill ensures they receive compensation through an actual salary. It makes all compensation much more transparent. Under the new plan each legislator will receive a salary of $16,380 per year. Another bill we voted on was SJR1. This bill, sponsored by Senator Stevenson clarifies that performance notes and fiscal notes be handled in the same way. These notes are very important and essential to passing bills responsibly.
A fiscal note is attached to every bill and tells us how much funding the legislation will require if it is implemented into law. The performance note will require the bill to set functioning goals. It allows us to ask questions and get answers to questions like: How is this program expected to help the state's citizens? Which citizens would be helped; would any be hurt? What key performance indicators will be used to track the progress of the program? Is anything being done to improve current deficiencies? Having this sort of information is critical to making value judgments on potential legislation.
The biggest issues are of course budget related. Starting last Tuesday morning and continuing through the next few weeks, the appropriations subcommittees will meet and work out their individual budgets.
These committees are made up of both House and Senate members and their task is to look at the available funds and then allocate them.
Education expenditures are the largest percentage (just over half) of the state’s budget. The Education Appropriations Committee met twice this week to discuss how education funds should be allocated. One of the things we will be looking at in all the budgets is the efficiency level of the money that is already being spent.
As you can see, it was a busy week and there are several more coming. You can keep track of what we are doing each day on the legislative website http://le.utah.gov or on the daily posts on the senate blog http://www.senatesite.com
I look forward to answering any questions or concerns you may have. Another way to contact me is through my intern. Her name is Katherine Rhodes. Her contact number is 801-502-8864. Interns are essential to our work here during the session.
Thank you for your support. I am grateful to represent you.
Senator Wayne Niederhauser