Friday, January 31, 2014

In praise of Herbert

I think I may have misjudged Governor Herbert. When running into him last week at the grocery store, I wanted to lay into him for his dithering on whether Utah would accept the ACA expansion of Medicaid. This week, however, he is looking like an old-guard Republican and seeming downright reasonable compared to the Republicans in the Utah House. (Photo's from here.)

In her opening remarks of this legislative session on Monday, Becky Lockhart (speaker of the house) laid into Governor Herbert as if he were Obama himself, apparently for the grievous sin of saying that Utah wouldn't outright refuse the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. She said she cannot understand why anyone “would propose to saddle Utah any further with Obamacare, the most costly and catastrophic federal mandate of all” and went on to call the Medicaid expansion an obvious bait and switch (even though the federal government funds 90% of the expansion through 2020). Incomprehensibly, she went on to say that the expansion wouldn't help serve those in need and wouldn't solve any of Utah's serious health care challenges. Hmm, Becky, does bringing health insurance (for the first time) to roughly 58,000 people sound like a minor accomplishment? Picture LaVell Edwards Stadium here, folks.

Thankfully, the Tribune came out against her misinformation campaign in an editorial yesterday. They said she’s attempting to outflank Gov Herbert on the right (“even though she has to take some horridly uninformed and cruel position to do so”) as apparently she’s planning on running against him in 2016.

She’s @beckylockhart, folks, and she’s coming to a town near you.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How to change the system

Matt Yglesias, one of my favorite writers, recently and sarcastically said the following about politicians and those to whom we generally look for policy wisdom: "who better to solve the world’s problems than the people who benefit from the status quo?" I love the way he put this and don't think this dynamic gets enough attention. One way to look at this is that we can't just automatically count on our elected officials to make changes that will benefit people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. The current system got them elected, so what would motivate them to change things? You might have heard that a majority in the US Congress are now millionaires. If the current system not only got them elected, but also made them millionaires, we're likely fooling ourselves if we think they're overly concerned about making even moderate policy changes, even when the benefits to many are clear as day.

What to do? Well, while it's simple, contacting these representatives on a local and national level is really the best way to push for the changes we want. I think there's a small group of people, often with quite hysterical views, that do this quite often (and these people are quickly ignored). YOU, on the other hand (and it's understandable, we're all busy) probably haven't badgered your elected leaders much and you probably hold fairly moderate views. It's these busy, politically-middle of the road people that need to make their voices heard. (This goes double for the poor, who have been decimated economically the past two decades, but are often too busy making ends meet to write their public officials, let alone run for office.)

To help solve, this I'll use this post as the blog's elected-official contact HQ. While I'll show how to find your local representatives, I'll also post the email and twitter handles of local cities, politicians, and other people of interest (I've been using Twitter recently to ask local cities to follow SLC in subsidizing transit passes). One suggestion: try and show gratitude as well as encouragement on particular issues. And please let me know if you can help fill in any details!

Senator Orrin Hatch

Senator Mike Lee

See here to find your US Congressional Representative:

Rep Rob Bishop (1st District)

Rep Chris Stewart (2nd District)

Rep Jason Chaffetz (3rd District)

Rep Jim Matheson (4th District)

And most importantly, the people who can make a change locally:

SLC Mayor Ralph Becker

SL County Mayor Ben McAdams

Governor Gary Herbert

Click here to find your state senator and representative

Utah Senate
Gene Davis (D) - Salt Lake
House Minority Leader

Karen Mayne (D)
Minority Whip - Salt Lake

Patricia W Jones (D)
Assistant Minority Whip

Luz Robles (D) - Salt Lake
Minority Caucus Manager

Jim Dabakis (D) - Salt Lake

Wayne A Harper (R) - Salt Lake

Deidre M Henderson (R) - Utah

Brian E Shiozawa (R) - Salt Lake

Wayne L Niederhauser (R) - Salt Lake
Senate President

Aaron Osmond (R) - Salt Lake

Howard A Stephenson (R) - Salt Lake, Utah

Daniel W Thatcher (R) - Salt Lake, Tooele

Mark B Madsen (R) - Salt Lake, Utah

John L Valentine (R) - Utah

Margaret Dayton (R) - Utah

Curtis S Bramble (R) - Utah, Wasatch

Peter C Knudson (R) - Box Elder, Cache, Tooele
Assistant Majority Whip

Stuart C Reid (R) - Davis, Morgan, Weber

Allen M Christensen (R) - Morgan, Summit, Weber

Scott K Jenkins (R) - Davis, Weber

Jerry W Stevenson (R) - Davis

J Stuart Adams (R) - Davis
Majority Whip

Todd Weiler (R) - Davis, Salt Lake

Ralph Okerlund (R) - Central Utah

Lyle W Hillyard (R) - Cache, Rich

Kevin T Van Tassell (R) - Northeastern Utah

David P Hinkins (R) - Central and Northern Utah

Evan J Vickers (R) - Beaver, Iron, Washington

Stephen H Urquhart (R) - Washington

Utah House of Representatives
Ronda Rudd Menlove (R) Box Elder, Cache

David E Lifferth (R) - Utah

Jack R Draxler (R) - Cache

Edward H Redd (R) - Cache

Curt R Webb (R) - Cache

Jacob L Anderegg (R) - Utah

Ryan D Wilcox (R) - Weber

Gage Froerer (R) - Weber

Jeremy A Peterson (R) - Weber

Dixon M Pitcher (R) - Weber

Brad L Dee (R) - Davis, Weber

Richard A Greenwood (R) - Davis, Weber

Paul Ray (R) - Davis

Curtis Oda (R) - Davis - on Colbert

Brad R Wilson (R) - Davis

Stephen G Handy (R) - Davis

Stewart Barlow (R) - Davis

Roger E Barrus (R) - Davis

Jim Nielson (R) - Davis

Rebecca P Edwards (R) - Davis

Douglas V Sagers (R) - Tooele

Susan Duckworth (D) - Salt Lake

Jennifer M Seelig (D) - Salt Lake

Rebecca Chavez-Houck (D) - Salt Lake

Joel K. Briscoe (D) - Salt Lake

Angela Romero (D) - Salt Lake

Michael S Kennedy (R) - Utah

Brian S King (D) - Salt Lake, Summit

Lee B Perry (R) - Box Elder, Weber

Janice M Fisher (D) - Salt Lake

Larry B Wiley (D) - Salt Lake

Lavar Christensen (R) - Salt Lake

Craig Hall (R) - Salt Lake

Johnny Anderson (R) - Salt Lake

Mark A Wheatley (D) - Salt Lake

Patrice M Arent (D) - Salt Lake

Carol Spackman Moss (D) - Salt Lake

Eric K Hutchings (R) - Salt Lake

James A Dunnigan (R) - Salt Lake

Lynn N Hemingway (D) - Salt Lake

Daniel McCay (R) - Salt Lake

Jim Bird (R) - Salt Lake

Earl D Tanner (R) - Salt Lake

Tim M Cosgrove (D) - Salt Lake

Steve Eliason (R) - Salt Lake

Marie H Poulson (D) - Salt Lake

Ken Ivory (R) - Salt Lake

Keven J Stratton (R) - Utah

Robert M Spendlove (R) - Salt Lake

Rich Cunningham (R) - Salt Lake

Gregory H Hughes (R) - Salt Lake

John Knotwell (R) - Salt Lake

Melvin R Brown (R) - Northeastern Utah

Kraig Powell (R) - Summit, Wasatch

John G Mathis (R) - Duchesne, Uintah

Kay J Christofferson (R) - Utah

Brian M Greene (R) - Utah

Jon Cox (R) - Juab, Sanpete

Val L Peterson (R) - Utah

Dana L Layton (R) - Utah

Keith Grover (R) - Utah

Jon E Stanard (R) - Washington

Dean Sanpei (R) - Utah

Rebecca D Lockhart (R) - Utah

Francis D Gibson (R) - Utah

Mike K McKell (R) - Utah

Marc K Roberts (R) - Utah

Merrill F Nelson (R) - Western Utah

Jerry B Anderson (R) Northern/Central Utah

Kay L McIff (R) - East/Central Utah

Bradley G Last (R) - Iron, Washington

John R Westwood (R) - Iron

Michael E Noel (R) - Southern Utah

V Lowry Snow (R) - Washington

Don L Ipson (R) - Washington

Salt Lake City transit pass soon available at a steep discount

So I've alluded to this in previous posts, but I've finally got around to investigating and found that SLC will be offering full transit passes for $30/month starting March 1st. See here for details. This is what Mayor Becker (photo from here) and UTA were so excited about in October and it's heartening to see it playing out as planned.

Just as a cost comparison, a yearly full-system UTA pass (for those living in SLC) will be ~$360, whereas the total cost of a vehicle per year is at least roughly $5,000. So, if a family is able to get rid of a car because of public transit, the potential savings are indeed quite large.

One hopes that other local municipalities follow suit (South Salt Lake, Sandy, Murray, West Valley City, Cottonwood Heights). These passes will hopefully start a feedback loop, in which more riders justify more bus lines, which bring even more people into the system. Thanks, Mayor Becker!

Monday, January 27, 2014

How to make the air not kill us (vehicle edition)

Reading some legislative proposals on how to fix Salt Lake's dirty air has been a bit disheartening, so I thought I'd lay out some basic principles that may be of use (recall the legislature began their 45 day session today).

First, whatever the details, any approach would require changes on two fronts. Since locals often can't use public transportation because it doesn't go where they need it to, the UTA bus network needs to be expanded. Trains are nice, but they're expensive and take years to implement. Early morning, late night, and weekend bus service can be expanded quite easily, as currently there are extra buses sitting in the garage at these times. Many drivers, I'm sure, would love the chance to pick up some extra shifts. Expanding the number of routes during the day should also be a part of any air quality plan and would require UTA to buy more buses and hire more drivers, but this can be done quickly if the funds are made available.

Now to the money. To fund such an expansion, gas taxes should be raised. Full stop. The incentives of this would work very well, as those who burn more gas (via physics) directly contribute the most to poor air quality. Those who complain about drivers of fuel efficient vehicles (or public transit users) not bearing their part of the infrastructure funding burden (mentioned in this article) should take a while and think about the incentives here. The money raised from the increased gas tax would be wisely used to expand UTA and help subsidize transit passes for Wasatch Front residents (such as was recently done by SLC). In terms of the details, say we raise the gas tax by forty cents per gallon per year until SL County goes one winter without exceeding national air quality standards. 

Not only would such a plan reduce air pollution, but it would also reduce traffic congestion, help the poor get to work more easily, increase local employment via the UTA hires, lessen our dependence on foreign oil, and save new transit users significant money on transportation costs.

If the gas tax easily covers a fully expanded UTA, legislators could lower the state income tax rate (which would also help make this whole thing more politically feasible).

This would be a great way to prepare the Wasatch Front for the substantial population growth that is to come. Thoughts?

So who rallied on Saturday and what do they want?

Most have heard of the ~4,000 person rally for clean air on Saturday at the capitol in Salt Lake City. I showed up and was glad to see an upset Dick Nourse (of KSL fame) blasting away at the dirty air (and those that abet it's continued presence): "If you can see it, if you can taste the air, if it hurts when it goes down your throat, chances are that damn air is bad." Amen, Dick.

Mayor Ralph Becker spoke, who recently gave his State of the City address (which was focused on air quality) and said "we need state level authority to step in" and help clean up the problem. He also urged citizens to be civil when reaching out to the local representatives. Other politicians in attendance were state Sen. Jim Dabakis (D-Salt Lake City) and Rep. Patrice Arent (D-Salt Lake City). Hopefully people are sending these guys the support they need in a hostile local legislature.

Other groups present include Utah Moms for Clean Air, Athletes for Clean Air, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, CleanAirNow, and others.

Cherise Udell of Utah Moms for Clean Air read of a list of measures they're looking for from the legislature, including subsidies to make public transit more affordable, the expansion of mass transit routes, a 10-year moritorium on new freeway construction, and stricter limits on industrial pollution. Those singled out for scorn included Rio Tinto, ATK, Hill Air Force Base, Geneva Rock, and Stericycle (which has been in the news lately). (I'll have more on all these guys in the days to come.)

The plan they propose sounds sensible, and we'll go more into the details in the coming days.

Local coverage of the event: SL Tribune, Deseret News, and Standard Examiner.

The Legislature starts work today and will be at the capitol through March; if you're interested in helping to make a change, contact your local politician through these links (Senate or Representative).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Breathing the muck

The poor air quality lately has motivated me to become more familiar with our local PM2.5 problems and how they actually compare to national standards. For the uninitiated, here is a great primer on the pollutant from the Atmospheric Science department at the University of Utah.

One of the main takeaways is the fact that the EPA recommends that, to avoid adverse health effects, daily average PM2.5 concentrations remain below 30ug/m^3 (micrograms per meter cubed).

Here's a figure (from the Department of Air Quality) of Salt Lake County PM2.5 concentrations over the last several days. Notice the fact that the blue line remains above fifty for significant time periods.

Their app is quite handy as well, showing a quick snap shot of current conditions, as well as time-series and air quality forecasts. While air quality has improved over the last 12 hours, we've seen several instantaneous readings of PM2.5 well above 60um/m3, which level is unhealthy for the entire population and not just sensitive groups. Current snapshot as of 10:05PM:

And here are the thresholds:

With the main takeaway being that PM2.5 values above 35 are unhealthy for sensitive groups (kids, those with respiratory ailments, and the elderly) while values above 55 area unhealthy for everyone.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Medicaid eligibility by state

For some context, here is a figure of Medicaid eligibility by state (from here, backed up by data here).

So, in Utah one must make below ~$8,000/yr to qualify for Medicaid (and adults without children are not eligible). This may be handy to keep in mind the next time you hear someone in Utah complaining about people living large on the government's dime. Also notice what an amazing difference there is between the states; it's a wonder that the more lower income folks don't decamp for Minnesota, DC, etc.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Will Utah take more Medicaid money from the Feds?

An important part of the ACA was the Medicaid expansion, which, in certain states, will cover families earning up to 138% of poverty ($27,000/yr for a family of three). By way of background, Medicaid is government-funded health insurance for poor people. The definition of poor (and eligibility for the program) varies state by state, as the program is jointly funded by both state and federal governments. For example, in Utah, pre-ACA Medicaid only covered people who made less than 47% of the poverty level (which is around $9k/yr for a family of three). Like many states, and before the ACA, Utah's Medicaid only covered adults with children. Poor people without kids were out of luck. The problem is that ACA exchange subsidies only kick in above 100%, which leaves a large gap if states don't expand their Medicaid programs.

Sooo, I'm mentioning this because I ran into Governor Herbert at the grocery store last night. My wife suggested (probably wisely, as he was accompanied by a secret service agent) that I not badger him with policy questions. And here's the question of the hour: Will Gov Herbert and the Utah Legislature take the federal government's money and allow the expansion of Utah's Medicaid program to provide health insurance for 57,850 people who don't currently have it?

Mind you, this is fully funded by the federal government for the first three years and 90% covered through 2020. Those who oppose expansion out of concern for the federal government deficit might want to consider the fact that people who show up in the ER without insurance are covered by the government anyway, but in the most expensive way possible.

If interested, contact the man here.

Postscript: Read about a potential Utah plan to take the fed's expansion money and use it to buy private company insurance policies for the poor here. While this is better than no expansion at all, it'd be worse than expanding Medicaid because the latter provides more for less money than market insurance plans.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Fancy a fiscal transfer?

So, more for bookkeeping than anything else, I wanted to post this counter-intuitive map of fiscal transfers among US states. In other words, the green give money and the red states (in this map) overall receive federal funds.

This is from the Economist. Now, lemme see... so the top states sending money out of their states to pay for stuff in other states are Minnesota, New York, Illinois, California, Washington, Colorado, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and Delaware. These are all known as liberal states, which all likely have generous social safety nets (by US standards). All I'm saying is the talk of producers versus takers is disingenuous at best and shouldn't exist in polite society.

Postscript (01/21): Another way to think about this is that many states with generous social safety nets are not only supporting their own citizens, but also those who reside in stingier (or more conservative) states.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Baby Steps for Shaving

So, as the perfect is often the enemy of the good (see here for a great example), instead of coming back with something mind-blowing, I'm coming back with something good. In light of the new year, and in the spirit of manageable improvement, I thought I'd catalog some small steps to a better world, as I find them.

To wit:

1) When shaving, see this trick for extending the life of your razors (and don't forget to dry after each use!). Thanks to this tip, I've been using the same Mach 3 for months now, which saves a bundle of money (and simplifies mind-numbing Costco trips).

2) My savvy father-in-law got me hooked on Col. Conk's World Famous Shave Soap, which helps the beard to effectively fall off my face, at a very low cost per use (one container lasts forever).

While we're not solving world hunger here, little life hacks like this make each day that much more enjoyable.

More to come.