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Under the Dome Archive for the Week of February 8, 2010

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February 12, 2010

Senate Retirement Committee Okays Sen. Liljenquist’s Retirement “Reform” Bills
By Mark D. Mickelsen, UEA Executive Director

After two separate meetings and nearly two-and-a-half hours of testimony by teachers and school employees, police officers, and other public sector workers, the Senate Retirement and Independent Entities Committee today advanced three of Sen. Dan Liljenquist’s retirement “reform” bills to the full Senate.

Approved on a partisan 3-2 vote were SB43 (first substitute): Post-retirement Employment Amendments, SB63 (first substitute): New Public Employees’ Tier II Contributory Retirement Act, and SB94: Supplemental Benefit Amendments for Noncontributory Public Employees. Senators Goodfellow and Mayne voted against the bills. Senators Bramble, Buttars, and Liljenquist voted in favor. Sen. Greiner was absent.

To their credit, the committee saw the importance of public input and, for both meetings, went out of their way to provide each audience member who wanted to speak an opportunity to be heard.

The substitute SB43 deals with post-retirement benefits.Substitute SB63 provides modified retirement benefits for new public employees. SB94 removes for employees that began full-time employment with the state or its educational institutions on or after July 1, 1986, the requirement that 1.5 percent of salary be paid into the 401(k) account of state and educational institution employees in the Public Employees’ Noncontributory Retirement System. Sen. Liljenquist withdrew his Senate Bill 42, which would have increased the years of service credit from 30 to 35 years for those in the Public Employees’ Contributory and Noncontributory Systems, and from 20-25 years in the Public Safety Contributory and Noncontributory and the Firefighters Retirement Systems.

As of today, the defined benefit system for current employees remains intact. “With respect to current employees, we will meet 100 percent of our obligation,” Sen. Liljenquist said.

Utah Education Association President Kim Campbell was one of the first to testify this afternoon. “As president of the UEA, I have the privilege of advocating for Utah’s dedicated public school educators, but I also have a strong obligation to speak out for those not yet in the education profession,” Campbell told committee members. “Last Saturday, we had thousands of public employees from all across the state gather here at the Capitol to share this same message: Do not make drastic changes to the Utah Retirement System without careful study and consideration.”

Campbell said the retirement issue “isn’t just about spreadsheets. It is about people. And it is about the future of the State of Utah. It’s about our ability to provide quality public services to the people of this state, and it is about the economic growth of the state.” Campbell warned that if Utah wants to attract and retain the best employees, school staff, police officers, and state employees, “we cannot continue to cut compensation . . . and a defined benefit [retirement] plan is deferred compensation.” She said research has shown that public employees are 18 percent more likely to stay in a career with a defined benefit retirement.

Numerous public safety groups made presentations that echoed Campbell’s remarks about attracting and retaining the highest quality employees.

Referring to the teachers and public employees gathered in the committee room, police officer Erin Rosen said, “Seated behind me are 100 Utah heroes.” He then proceeded to share with the senators how hard these employees work for the state – providing protection, education, and a myriad of other services important to the citizenry. Rosen said the three bills introduced by Sen. Liljenquist will result in “disastrous outcomes” for employees. “Take the hero’s approach,” Rosen said, encouraging the committee to table the bills.

“I understand the human element,” said Sen. Liljenquist, who noted that he met with every employee group to listen to their concerns. “The challenge is that no one wants to change [retirement benefits].”

“You guys are the backbone of our community,” Sen. Chris Buttars said of the teachers, police officers, and public employees in the room. “You guys are heroes. We want to serve you the best we can.”

AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) representative Anthony Garcia presented 1,367 petitions signed by his members, people he said may be negatively impacted by the retirement legislation.

Only the Utah Taxpayer’s Association and the Utah Association of Counties spoke in support of the retirement legislation, although the UAC representative said, “we are not convinced the bills are ready to become law.”

“I am here because of a defined benefit,” said Sen. Karen Mayne, explaining that she would be unable to serve in the Senate without a guaranteed retirement. “Defined benefits helped me.”

February 11, 2010

Public Ed Spared in FY2010, Questions Remain for FY2011
By Susan Kuziak, UEA Legislative Team Member

Tuesday was a day with ups and downs. The UP…and it was a big UP…was the proposed change to the current year (FY2010) public education budget. We’ve all heard how state revenues have dropped substantially below what was projected when the 2010 budget was passed last legislative session. Public ed faced the possibility of very substantial cuts ($84 million was discussed). When the proposed budget changes were disclosed during caucus meetings and later adopted by the Executive Appropriations Committee, Public Education was spared most all cuts. The reduction is projected to be $1,334,600 with much of this coming from the State Office of Education and smaller initiatives programs. These budget changes are dependent on revenue numbers that the legislature will receive on Feb. 16…we’ll all be keeping our fingers crossed.

As teachers we know that rewarded behavior is repeated…we need to express our thanks to legislators and the Governor for their efforts to preserve this year’s budget. It will only take a minute to e-mail or call and leave a message of appreciation:
-       Governor’s office: 801-538-1000
-       Senate Majority Office: 801-538-1035
-       Senate Minority Office: 801-538-1406
-       House Majority Office: 801-538-1029
-       House Minority Office: 801-538-1650
Senate Chair of Executive Appropriations is Sen. Lyle Hillyard, House Chair is Rep. Ron Bigelow. Minority leaders on Executive Appropriations are Sen. Pat Jones and Rep. David Litvak. Contact these individuals and your own legislators by clicking here.

The downs: The full Senate debated and passed on its second reading First Substitute SB77: District Association Leave Policies. This bill is opposed by the UEA. School boards and superintendents are not supporting the bill. Senators to thank for voting ‘no’ are all Senate Democrats, Sen. VanTassell and Sen. Liljenquist.

Wednesday was Educator Day on the Hill and teachers from a number of districts came to be briefed on the issues and engage in a discussion with their representatives and senators. They were able to attend the noon meeting of the Senate Retirement Committee where Sen. Dan Liljenquist presented the three retirement bills he is sponsoring (for a review of the meeting, click here).

It was expected that SB77 would have its third reading this morning…which precedes the final vote in the Senate. When the time came, the sponsor “circled” the bill and it remains ‘on the board.’ Efforts are continuing to talk with senators about the potential negative impacts of the bill and ask them to trust their local districts to make appropriate decisions about what leave is allowed to employees and associations in the best interests of their particular district.

To send a letter to your legislator opposing SB77, click here.

Wednesday ended with the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting. The meeting was dedicated to discussion of where cuts should be recommended in the FY2011 budget. They also discussed priorities for what would be restored if more funds than expected become available. A proposal developed by the Committee chairs was the basis for discussion. IF…and it’s a big IF…no additional revenues become available, public education’s budget could suffer a cut of 22 percent (remember, part of the current budget was filled with one-time money that is not available for FY2011). A question debated at length was whether available money should fund the WPU or should, in part, restore funding to programs ‘below the line’ (not funded with WPUs), most of which are direct services to students. Sen. Howard Stephenson expressed deep concern about what will happen in classrooms with budget cuts and his belief that any funds that can be restored should be placed on the WPU where it will reach the regular classroom program.

To send a letter to your legislator expressing concerns about the public education budget, click here.

The Subcommittee will meet again Thurs. afternoon to finalize its recommendations. Updated revenue projections are expected on Feb. 16. The Executive Appropriations Committee will consider all subcommittee recommendations in light of this revenue information.

February 10, 2010

Retirement Bills Introduced in Senate Committee
By Mark Mickelsen, UEA Executive Director

From a Utah Public Employees’ Association (UPEA) member, who said the defined benefit offered by the Utah Retirement Systems (URS) has allowed her retired family members to care for their needs, to a Utah School Employees Association (USEA) staff member, who cautioned against retirement changes that could be “disastrous for the state,” the dozens of educators and public employees gathered for today’s Senate Retirement and Independent Entities Committee were more than ready to share their feelings with Sen. Dan Liljenquist. The senator introduced his retirement “reform” bills to an overflow crowd, saying if nothing is done to shore up the state’s pension fund, the system will run out of money.

Liljenquist, who originally posted four separate retirement bills, told the crowd he would not be running SB42: Retirement Eligibility Modifications, which would have increased the years of service credit from 30 to 35 years for those in the Public Employees’ Contributory and Noncontributory Systems, and from 20-25 years in the Public Safety Contributory and Noncontributory and the Firefighters Retirement Systems.

Liljenquist did, however, present three other retirement bills dealing with post-retirement (SB43: Post-retirement Employment Amendments), the elimination of 401(k) benefits (SB94: Supplemental Benefit Amendments for Noncontributory Public Employees), and the creation of a new “hybrid” retirement plan for new employees (SB63: New Public Employees’ Tier II Contributory Retirement Act).

Prompted by Senate leadership to look at cost-cutting items, Liljenquist said he met with URS management and actuaries who, last September, told the senator the system faced a $6.5 billion unfunded liability. But Sen. Brent Goodfellow questioned Liljenquist’s portrayal of the system’s financial losses. “The DOW is over 10,000 and it has come back,” Goodfellow said. “We are painting the worst case scenario.”

Chad Soffe, state president of the Fraternal Order of Police, gave much of his speaking time to his wife, Kathleen, who talked about what it is like to live on a police officer’s salary. “I knew we were on a road to poverty,” she said, noting that with a $30,000 average salary they qualified for free school lunches. Mrs. Soffe said due to Chad’s schedule, their children face birthdays and Christmas mornings without their father. “It’s a good year when there is no reduction in pay,” she said. Mrs. Soffe urged the committee to “go slow [and] study the issues” when contemplating changes in police retirement benefits.

A representative of the UPEA, Sheri Watters, said the retirement benefits offered by the URS allowed her family members to care for their needs during retirement. She told the committee a Defined Benefit system allows the middle class to remain a part of the middle class at retirement. “Study this further,” she said.

Geoff Leonard, legal counsel for the USEA, said, “We don’t deny there is a problem. We are not saying do nothing, but go slowly.” Leonard said a rushed decision on retirement reform could be “disastrous for the state.”

Due to the lack of time for public comment, the Committee has scheduled another meeting for Friday, Feb 12, beginning at noon.

UEA members are encouraged to call and/or e-mail their SENATORS and ask them to vote against Senate Bills 43, 63, and 94.

To send a letter to your legislator expressing concerns about the retirement bills, click here.

February 9, 2010

Corporate Tax Incentives Continue to Drain Revenue
By Kim Campbell, UEA President

Saturday’s retirement rally was a great success! Kudos to planners, supporters and attendees…but this is just the beginning. Please contact your legislators about retirement. Many legislators are sending back great letters filled with information on the need to change the system, but they show a determined overreaction to the situation. Please remind them to study all the effects of changes BEFORE acting, not after, and that the system may need adjusting, but not bulldozing.

Monday’s Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee meeting pointed out a major flaw in our tax structure…the proliferation of corporate tax incentives. (See the Utahns for Public Schools Tax Structure Report II for more details.) Several years ago, Sen. Lyle Hillyard carried a bill to rein in these incentives, but the effect was only a temporary slowdown in the relentless crush of requests. UEA’s stance, supported by business research, is that quality of life and an educated workforce are more important factors for companies in site selection for new businesses than tax incentives. Businesses will accept, even push for such breaks, but they are icing on the cake, not the determining factors. In this Committee meeting, two such incentives were approved: SB61: Sales and Use Tax Exemption for a Web Search Portal and SB73: Sales and Use Tax Relating to Aircraft for aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul.

February 8, 2009

Association Leave, Public Education Budget and Ethics Discussions
By Susan Kuziak, UEA Legislative Team Member

Week Three of the 2010 Legislative session began with a meeting of the UEA Legislative Team to review bills that relate to the UEA’s legislative priorities and platform. Guided by the legislative platform and the priorities adopted each year at UEA’s annual House of Delegates, the Team determines whether to take a position “for” or “against” the proposed legislation, to “watch” the bill or to take “no position.” Click on 2010 Legislative Tracking Sheet under “Hot Issues” to see bills currently being tracked by UEA and UEA’s position on those bills.

The Education Coalition also held its weekly Monday meeting to discuss bills and share positions on them. It’s helpful to understand the meaning and impact of proposed legislation from the various perspectives of the State Board of Education, local boards and superintendents, the Governor’s office, PTA, USEA, and elementary and secondary principals.

SB77: District Association Leave Policies—
During Senate ‘floor time,’ Sen. Margaret Dayton introduced First Substitute SB77: District Association Leave Policies. The substitute has many changes from the bill originally introduced. Sen. Dayton is attempting to respond to concerns raised by her Senate colleagues. However, serious concerns remain about the substitute bill…specifically, the level of interference it imposes in the work of local school districts, the lack of clear definition of terms used in the bill, the constitutionality of the revised provisions and lack of clarity about how it applies (to whom and in what circumstances). The bill will be debated in the Senate Tuesday morning. NOW IS THE TIME FOR LOCAL LEADERS, SUPERINTENDENTS, AND SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS TO CONTACT THEIR SENATORS ASKING THEM TO SUPPORT LOCAL CONTROL AND OPPOSE SB77.

To send a letter to your legislator opposing SB77, click here.

FY2011 Public Education Budget—
In the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Chris Buttars presented in more detail his proposals for cuts in education he feels would free up funds to mitigate other required cuts. These include the much-publicized elimination of 12th grade and reductions in some secondary busing. The Senator would increase the number of students graduating early by publicizing the potential for accelerating graduation and offering ‘flexible incentives’ or payments during the first year of college (similar to Concurrent Enrollment, AP or distance learning). He projects a potential savings of $102 million if one half of potential 12th graders (20,000) took this option. MUCH discussion followed. Whether actual savings would result and if so how much was questioned by several legislators. Public testimony included parents and others who felt the option to graduate early was needed. Rep. Marie Poulson, an educator, informed the committee that early graduation has been possible and available for years. Sen. Buttars also projected savings of $7.5 million if high school busing was reduced by 50 percent with an offer of carpool incentives.

Each committee member was asked to make his/her suggestions from where an additional $102 million in cuts might be made. Rep. Phil Riesen began with an emphatic statement that there comes a time when you cannot cut more muscle and bone and must talk instead about how funding can be found, saying this is a time when more education is needed for students, not less. Rep. Greg Hughes responded with strong disagreement stating we are not yet at bone and marrow. Suggestions have been made in the past of ways money could be saved without cutting where it hurts, but the education community has been unwilling to look at these, he said. He gave the example of a three-semester year with educators working 224 days rather than 180, fully utilizing school buildings.

Other committee members made suggestions for consideration. Rep. Tim Cosgrove suggested cutting some testing, at least temporarily, to save money and allow more instruction time. He stated his preference for reductions across the board to avoid cuts that hurt some more than others. Several suggested that transportation cuts might be made. Rep. Poulson stated her preference for allocating funds to the basic program that serves all children. Rep. Morgan presented a revised Minimum School Program spreadsheet that combines some program areas and attempts to simplify the basic programs. She also recommended a discussion of the $100 million set aside for public education and the Rainy Day Fund.

There seemed to be most consensus around giving local districts maximum flexibility to move funds among categories as best suits the needs of their district and to combine the ‘below the line’ programs (those not funded on the WPU formula). The Committee will hold what may be its final meeting on Wednesday afternoon to finalize the funding recommendations it will forwarded to the Executive Appropriations Committee.

This is a critical time to contact committee members about maximizing funding using available revenues like the $100 million education reserve. Remind them that the base budget for FY2011 they have adopted, HB1 (First Substitute), is already reduced by $282 million in one-time funds, cuts the WPU by 1.8 percent to fund growth and cuts programs by 2 percent, for a total reduction for public education funding of 14 percent over the cuts taken in FY2010.

To send a letter to your legislator expressing concerns about the public education budget, click here.

Legislative Ethics Reform—
The Senate Government Operations Committee met and considered three ethics-related bills. SJR3: Joint Resolution on Ethics Complaint Procedures would establish an Independent Ethics Commission to investigate ethics complaints filed against sitting legislators. SB136: Open and Public Meetings Revisions Related to Review of Ethics Complaints and SB138: Grama Revisions Related to Review of Ethics Complaints relate to the confidentiality of records reviewed by, and meetings of, the Independent Ethics Commission. Sen. Valentine explained the intent of major provisions of the bills. The League of Women Voters, Utah Coalition for Open Government and Utahns for Ethical Government testified and raised concerns about portions of the bills. Each bill passed out of committee favorably and moves to the full Senate for consideration.

February 6, 2010

Week Two Ends With Education Committee Action
By Susan Kuzaik, UEA Legislative Team Member

Week 2 and counting: Friday was the first ‘Educator Day on the Hill’. It is always productive and powerful to have teachers, the people who do the work of education every day, talking in person with the elected legislators who represent them personally and the schools where they teach. There were educators from small and large districts, urban and rural, elementary, secondary and Special Education. There were good conversations about several important issues. Legislators learned from their teacher constituents and teachers learned a lot about the legislative process.

The Senate Education Committee began the day Friday. SB132: Higher Education Scholarship Amendments, a bill to revise the criteria for New Century Scholarships, was presented by Sen. John Valentine. Concern about ability to fund the scholarship program is the driver behind the proposed changes. Changes include higher academic standards to qualify, earlier timelines for application and the requirement that a scholarship recipient be enrolled in a higher education program in the Fall following graduation (with some exceptions). The bill passed out of committee and will move on for debate by the full Senate where some amendments are likely.

Sen. Pat Jones presented SB49 (second substitute): Vending Machines in Public Schools. The Senator stated the second substitute was not the bill she had hoped to pass. The revised bill has “lost its teeth,” she said. However, she feels bringing public attention to the issue of childhood obesity and encouraging healthy nutrition for students is important. Debate on other bills allowed inadequate time for the presentation and for public comment. There were many people who had come to testify to the bill who were not able to testify.

The House Education Committee meeting in the afternoon ended the week. Rep. Marie Poulson presented HJR3: Joint Resolution on Teacher Performance Pay. It passed with a unanimous recommendation by the House committee. UEA strongly supports HJR3. It establishes a framework to guide legislative action on any performance pay proposals. It identifies those elements that must be included in performance pay programs if they are to be successful and acceptable to educators. These include collaborative development, open to all educators who qualify, fair and objective criteria aligned with school improvement programs, and a sustainable source of funding among other things.

HB268: Public School Innovations, sponsored by Rep. Keith Grover, was pulled from the agenda by the sponsor who indicated he is still working on the legislation. UEA has serious concerns about this bill and will keep educators informed as it moves through the process. It is likely to be back on the House committee agenda next week.

On Monday the Senate Government Operations Committee will begin considering several pieces of ethics legislation. The Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee will meet in the afternoon to begin its deliberations on education priorities and what recommendations it will forward for FY2011 education funding. THIS IS THE TIME for teachers to contact their legislator expressing the good things that are happening in their classrooms and their schools and where funding is most needed to help them most effectively continue positive work with students.

To send a letter to your legislator expressing concerns about the public education budget, click here.

Conversations with individual legislators will intensify as the retirement bills begin to move through the legislative process in the coming week. The Senate Retirement Committee will meet at noon on Wednesday and consider SB43: Post-retirement Employment Amendments, SB63: New Public Employees’ Tier II Contributory Retirement Act, and SB94: Supplemental Benefit Amendments for Noncontributory Public Employees.

To send a letter to your legislator expressing concerns about the retirement bills, click here