There has been a lot of talk this legislative session about immigration reform. I don’t think anyone would dispute that our immigration system is broken and deeply flawed, but there is quite a bit of disagreement about how to fix it, who should fix it, and what to do next.
The easy part of government is to identify the problem — the hard part is to identify a solution. Whether you agree or disagree with the various immigration reform bills proposed this year, one needs to respect the individuals that have dedicated their time to generating possible solutions. It isn’t an easy job to imagine something better and then draft laws to make it so.
Many of the illegal immigrants that make their way to our state come with a desire to work, but not all do. Some come with more nefarious purposes in mind. The various immigration bills proposed this year all address the problem from a different perspective, but I believe that tackling it from the criminal element perspective offers the best solution. In 2009, I sponsored an immigration bill that took a hard stance on the crime committed by illegal immigrants.
The bill created a multi-agency strike force to combat violent criminal offenses related to illegal immigration. At the time the bill was passed, it was much like the slate of immigration bills proposed this year; one in a wide range of possible ideas meant to tackle a delicate and difficult problem. Two years later, we can now see that this idea has proven to be an effective tool and one the state can easily employ.
When we crafted this bill, our idea was to go after the worst of the worst: the people who were entering our country illegally for the purpose of selling drugs, committing identity theft, human trafficking and committing violent crimes.
I worked together with the Utah Attorney General’s Office to create the first SECURE Strike Force to make our communities safer. In less than two years, the strike force has defied all expectations by opening 250 criminal cases, making 146 arrests which have resulted in 61 state and federal felony convictions with several cases still making their way through the court system.
Just last week, the strike force made two major busts dealing with a piracy ring. Police arrested ten illegal aliens and seized more than 29,000 pirated CDs and DVDs. The nine-month investigation seized discs worth over $345,000 and two of the men arrested face charges of aggravated re-entry into the country. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, piracy causes $12.5 billion in losses to the U.S. economy each year and results in the loss of 70,000 jobs.
My hope for future immigration bills is that they build on the results we are seeing from the strike force bill.
One of the many worries about immigration reform is that some pieces of legislation might make immigrant communities afraid of police and therefore even more vulnerable to abuse. Since the strike force targets only serious felony offenses, it has gained the respect and cooperation of members of the Hispanic community because they know that their neighborhoods are safer when you take felons off the streets.
There is an active public policy debate about whether the states should handle illegal immigration in the face of federal inaction, but the criminal issue is very much in the jurisdiction of the states and something we can and should tackle for the good of Utah.
As we evaluate the immigration bills before us this year, I will be looking for proposals that are similar to the strike force bill that will provide results, can immediately be implemented, and will take more undocumented immigrants with criminal intent off our streets.
It is scary, growing at an accelerated rate and it consumes all the funding within its reach. No, I’m not describing a scene from “The Blob,” I’m describing Medicaid and its impact on the state budget. Often confused with its sister program Medicare, Medicaid is a health care program for low-income and disabled adults and children that is jointly funded by federal and state governments, but administered by individual states.
While the idea of a safety net program for the poor and needy is admirable, the simple truth is the enormous costs of the program are overwhelming all the states, including Utah.
The hard reality of our current budget situation is that our state revenues have shrunk while demand for state services has grown and grown dramatically in certain sectors. Public education, which has long occupied the top spending spot in our budget, is now being challenged by Medicaid. Right now Medicaid requires 13 percent of the state budget, but it is projected to grow almost exponentially to 36 percent of the total budget by 2020.
This growth rate is three times faster than the overall growth of state revenue. Unemployment rates due to the recession are causing Medicaid rolls to expand to never before seen highs and medical costs have never been higher. All this is compounded by new requirements in the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (federal health care reform bill) passed last year have only exacerbated the growth problems by greatly expanding the program while leaving states with fewer options for managing costs. We can’t spend more than we have.
The end result is a program that does resemble the “Blob” gobbling up all the resources in sight.
It is not at all hard to imagine a time when the costs of Medicaid expand beyond our ability to pay for them. The program is like a ticking time bomb that will eventually blow up and bankrupt the state.
The Legislature has been studying the unsustainable growth of Medicaid and has proposed a plan for addressing the Medicaid cost curve, with potential cost savings of $770 million over the next seven years. Since many rules for the program are dictated at the federal level, we as legislators had to think outside of the box for solutions within state control.
The plan places incentives for health services on cost and quality of care, not the number of procedures performed. By moving to a managed care model we hope to provide better overall health outcomes for Medicaid recipients.
This plan would also limit the per enrollee growth of Medicaid to the overall growth rate of the state’s general fund. For example, if the general fund growth is 5 percent, then Medicaid per enrollee growth can only be 5 percent. This way Medicaid can’t grow faster than the state can afford to pay. I can’t emphasis this component enough.
While we want to be able to care for our poor and needy, we can’t do so at the expense of every other state responsibility (like public education).
One of the more interesting components of the bill would create a Medicaid-specific rainy day fund. If Medicaid growth falls below 8 percent, the cost savings would go into the fund.
We have seen over the last few years the wisdom of having rainy day funds for both public education and the general fund.
It makes sense to plan for a time when more people than expected might need to take advantage of the safety net services Medicaid provides.
Some of these ideas will require federal waivers in order to enact the changes. My hope is the federal government will see the wisdom of taming this wildly growing program and quickly grant the necessary waiver requests.
We’ve learned from the recession that we can’t let programs balloon beyond our ability to pay or we will all end up dealing with the difficult aftermath when the balloon pops.
For better or worse, this year’s hottest hot topic at the Legislature appears to be immigration. This issue has simmered for many years, sometimes hitting boiling points such as when the State instituted a requirement that undocumented immigrants receive a driving privilege card rather than a drivers’ license a few years ago. Illegal immigration could be more easily addressed at the federal level, but unfortunately, the federal government lacks the courage and political leadership to do so, leaving the issue to the states to handle as they may.
Last year, the Arizona State Legislature passed a controversial piece of in-state immigration legislation, which grabbed the attention of like-minded legislators in Utah. Rep. Steve Standstrom (R-Orem) has worked to craft his version of an immigration bill. Since this issue is difficult, complex, and emotional on all sides, Rep. Sanstrom’s efforts have garnered quite a response and generated several other bills on the subject.
The debate seems to be centered on a few key bills or themes, each attempting to tackle the issue from a different perspective. Rep. Sandstrom’s bill is entitled HB 70 Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act and as its title suggests, its key element is an enforcement push by police. It also includes enforcement provisions for anyone that might try to induce an undocumented immigrant to come to Utah and a requirement that legal status be documented by any State or local government agency offering a license or public benefit of any type.
Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Draper) is currently working on a draft bill that would address the issue from an economic point of view. His bill takes the perspective that undocumented immigrants fill a void in our workforce and seeks to institute a state-run guest worker program. The program would require the posting of bonds to ensure immigrants return to their native country. Renewal of permits would be contingent on several factors, not least of which is the requirement that a guest worker return home before reapplying. The bill would also provide for the collection of taxes from the workers while in Utah. In order for this bill to be implemented, the federal government would need to grant Utah a waiver authorizing the State to run the program.
Yet another bill seeks to consider the humanitarian angle. Sen. Luz Robles’ (D-Salt Lake City) bill recognizes that undocumented immigrants are here in our community and seeks to bring them out into the open. Though still in draft form, this bill would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a guest worker permit after completing a background check and taking English and civics courses. Federal waivers in several areas would be required in order to implement the provisions in this bill if it were to pass.
Each of the three bills I have outlined has generated spin-offs and some even have companion bills. Recognizing that there were many bills to consider in our short session, the Senate Republican Caucus has suggested that an omnibus bill be created to encompass most of the compatible ideas. Clearly, not all of the ideas that have been suggested are compatible and we in the House Republican Caucus are eager to see what they might purpose.
One thing is very clear, this issue will demand much debate and discussion before the Legislature will be able to pick the best Utah-specific path on the issue. My continued hope is that the Legislature and the citizens of the State engage in dialogue on this issue, and all issues, with respect and civility. We can disagree without being disagreeable, even on this difficult and personal subject and find Utah solutions.