My Christmas List for the Utah Legislature

SnowDomeDear Utah Legislature,

I have just a few requests, some of which coincide with this Utah Foundation report on our quality of life index.

Find a way to Improve our Schools

We are constantly at the bottom of the list when it comes to per student funding. That said, throwing money at problems doesn’t necessarily solve them.

When you look at state by state comparisons, it looks like the more you spend, the higher the school quality ranking. But the U.S. leads the world in spending on education and yet our test scores do not show an increase in quality.

Likewise, Utah schools rank higher than they should considering our spending rank and our educated workforce is a major draw for companies. Simply put, we do much more, even with less.

However, a recent Utah Foundation study found that we are losing ground against our peer states on student scores. The study made several recommendations on how we can close the gap: (1) Teacher Quality and Professional Development, including mentoring for new teachers and continuing education for established teachers; (2) Timely, Standards-based Student Assessment, including data driven tools that “enable educators to modify instructional practices as students’ needs evolve throughout the school year (as opposed to only at the end of the year);” (3) Early Childhood Education, especially programs that target high-risk populations; (4) High School Interventions, including counseling that is personalized and looks beyond graduation to college and career goals.

There are plans to increase school funding, but I hope that this funding is tied to focused investments that will create programs that result in real solutions.

Address Air Quality

“The Quality of Life Index survey asked of respondents ‘what is the single most important thing that could improve the quality of life in your area?’ Air quality, as noted previously, topped the list with
13% of respondents.”

Salt Lake and Uintah counties both get an “F” from the American lung association for air quality. Last year the New York times called us a nature lover’s haven plagued by dirty air after we swept the top five cities with the worst air quality. One of our problems is the inversion caused by a combination of weather and geography, but this is not an excuse, it is a problem we need to solve.

What can be done? We have already had Erin Brokovich arrive on the scene. And our department of air quality is working on several projects and rules. Here’s what I understand is being done right now per this article:

  1. Mandatory Emissions cuts. Everything from consumer goods like hairspray to industrial smokestacks.
  2. Regulators are assuming that newer cars and cleaner-burning gas will “do more than anything to clean Utah’s air.

I’m a little underwhelmed, isn’t there more we can do?

Don’t Legalize Pot

Speaking of air quality, it looks like we are likely to see a bill this session that would legalize marijuana use. Recently, Gallup posted a poll that showed that, for the first time, a majority of Americans favor legalizing pot.

My experience has been that proponents generally started saying marijuana is less harmful than cigarettes, which isn’t saying much, but might lead you to wonder why they’re illegal. I would say that marijuana use isn’t less harmful than tobacco, the harm is just different. Studies tying marijuana use to mental health disorders like schizophrenia are legion (here, here, here, and here). Where tobacco leads to physical disorders like cancer, marijuana use leads to mental disorders like schizophrenia.

While I recognize that the war on drugs has led to disastrous results, among them the Mexican drug cartels, perhaps simply legalizing drugs isn’t the only option to resolving these side effects. Indeed, after prohibition, the mobsters didn’t just disappear, it took adapting our law enforcement via measures like RICO laws to solve that problem. Until I am satisfied that legalization is the only way we can solve the problem we now face with the war on drugs, I would not support legalization. There is a lot to think about on this issue and I think the issue deserves more time for a full debate.

However there might be room for an exception for marijuana derived medicines that are hallucinogenic-free. As long as we set a clear line that avoids a slippery slope, I think we should define a set of legitimate uses. To me, this is as mundane as putting it in hand lotion because it is hallucinogenic-free.

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