Within twenty-four hours of my being selected as a county delegate, state senator Parley Hellewell had called and asked to come visit me in my home. Since then I have received circulars and letters in the mail from other candidates, but no one has matched Mr. Hellewell’s direct, personal approach. So, as I mentioned in my previous post, after our family outing to listen to my uncle’s swing/dance band on Saturday, I hurried home for my meeting with Senator Hellewell.
I remembered the senator from his unsuccessful run for Republican gubernatorial candidate back in 2004. To be frank, at the time he had given me the unfortunate impression that he was not really on top of things and that a few key members of his election staff really ran the show from behind the scenes. However, my one-on-one meeting with him on Saturday disabused me of that notion.
Senator Hellewell arrived promptly at 7:00pm. I welcomed him into my home and we sat down.
Since I still had illegal immigration on my mind from my earlier conversations with Jim Ferrin and Steve Sandstrom, I decided to lead out with that topic.
Parley has a reputation for being one of the most conservative members of the state senate, a fact that he mentioned in our conversation, so I expected him to take an extreme hard line against illegal immigration, as right-wing conservatives often do. I was surprised when he told me that the fruit farmers in Utah would die without the illegal immigrant workers who harvest the fruit. He said that he has been contacted by many fruit farmers about the issue and he went into great detail about the fruit farming business, the cost of hiring workers to pick the fruit, and how that cost influences the cost of the fruit when it goes to market. He said that only the illegal immigrants are willing to work for low enough wages for the amount of time necessary that the farmers can sell the fruit at a price that people will purchase it. He mentioned one local business in particular that cannot sell their tomatoes at a high enough price to recuperate the cost of growing and harvesting them because no one will pay that much for the tomatoes. He said that if we expel all of the illegal immigrants, all of the fruit farmers would go out of business.
We discussed the Driver Privilege Cards the state issues to illegal aliens and I told him about Representative Farrin’s explanation that the cards were necessary to allow illegals to get auto insurance. The senator wasn’t sure that that was the principal reason, but he also emphasized that the cards can only be used for a few, well-defined things, and cannot be used to apply for credit cards or get loans.
Elaborating on the problem of illegal aliens, the senator told me that the law stipulates that hospitals must treat anyone who comes to them with an emergency, regardless of their ability to pay. This is a good policy because it ensures that the poorest among us will not be denied life-saving treatment because they cannot pay. However, it also means that the hospitals must treat everyone, including illegal immigrants. He said that just last year the University of Utah Hospital spent $65 million treating illegal aliens. The illegal immigrants, knowing that the hospitals will treat them, go for even minor health issues, but never pay of the treatment.
We discussed the Federal efforts to establish a guest worker program. Parley said that he supports such a program and he believes that most Utahns would support the Guest Worker program if they really understood it.
Conservatism and Bi-Partisanship
The topic then moved on to conservatism. The senator had announced that he was not going to run for re-election. His business had really grown during the previous year and he and his wife had decided that he could not do both the business and politics at the same time. He had decided to pursue his business. However, after announcing that he would not be running, many people approached him and begged him to reconsider. He said that he is only one of maybe two senators who are consistently willing to tackle religious issues in the senate. He clarified that while there are other legislators who will vote in favor of bills dealing with religious issues, they aren’t generally willing to propose the bills. A number of people who approached him said that he was really needed in the senate and begged him to reconsider his decision not to run. Meanwhile he sold off one of the companies he had acquired, and freed up some of his time. He decided to run for re-election after all.
Parley described himself as a “strong, strong conservative” and “probably the most conservative guy up there” yet he also emphasized that he is well respected and often able to get support from both Democrats and moderate Republicans as well. As an example, he detailed a senate resolution he proposed that, while it did nothing to change existing law, clarified what kinds of activities and discussions in relation to Christmas were appropriate in a public school setting. Many teachers and administrators were anxious about what was appropriate in school during the Christmas holiday. They were concerned about the possibility of being sued. Senator Hellewell’s resolution was meant to alleviate that anxiety by outlining what the constitution would allow. His resolution passed with 100% of the votes in the Senate. When it reached the House, they wanted to amend the resolution to add the word “annually” so that the explanation of what was appropriate in schools would be sent to all the districts and schools not only that year but every year. With that modification, the resolution passed the House of Representatives with 100% of the votes. He also mentioned a few other instances where he had worked with senators with whom he most often disagreed to get the right thing done.
Parley explained his legislative philosophy: that conservatives have to make changes one at a time. He says that the far right often doesn’t like that; they want all or nothing. But he believes that the changes conservatives would like to see will never happen if we have to do it in one lump sum.
He described the previous year as “the worst year we’ve ever had, as far as animosity.”
He asserted that “if we lose our moral values in the country, nothing else matters.”
I then mentioned that the issues over tax reform have been quite contentious, and ask him what his position was.
Senator Hellewell stated that he is in favor of a flat tax, but he is against the Governor’s plan to remove the sales tax from food. He explained that in other states where they have stopped charging sales tax on food they end up raising property taxes to compensate. He explained that charging sales tax on food is the most stable income base for the state. When the economy dips we need a consistent stable source of state revenue, like the food tax, or else we are in danger of losing our A1 bond rating, which means when the state borrows money through bonding it would cost us significantly more in interest. The economy always goes up and down, he says, and so we need that stable source.
He also explained that people don’t realize that 60% of what they buy when they go to the grocery store is not considered “food” by the legal definition. For instance, he said, T.V. dinners are not “food” under the definitions the law uses and would still be taxed. He said that at best it would save people maybe $5, but it would cost the state $180 million.
He also explained that another, even more serious problem with repealing the sales tax on food, is that it would put 1000 small businesses in Utah out of business. The reason why, he said, is that in order to comply with the foodless sales-tax each small local store would have to purchase a special computer program in order to be able to correctly handle charging sales tax properly and identify which items were “food” and which were not. That computer program alone would cost each business $30,000 – $40,000—which is more than they can afford. He said that as the possibility of Internet Sales Tax looms, the issue will get even more complicated.
One interesting fact he mentioned that readers might like to know is that part of the definition of what is considered “food” is if it contains wheat . If it doesn’t then it is probably not a “food” item and would still be charged sales tax. So people would still be paying sales tax on a host of items that are commonly considered food.
He also said that sales tax on food is one of the few sources of revenue that brings money from out of state. Visitors and people traveling through Utah buy food and are taxed. He said we need to keep that way of allowing money from outside to help out the state.
Transportation vs Education
We then spoke about Transportation issues. Parley described the current construction going on on the highway in Utah County as a “band-aid.” He said trying to fund building the transportation infrastructure is a major problem. At the same time, he said that people lobbying for more money for education often accuse them of “Paving over our children’s backs.” He said that such education lobbyists don’t understand that you have to have balance. 100% of our state income tax goes to education. But they have to understand that businesses wont come to Utah if the roads are bad. Businesses bring people to work. Those people pay income taxes, 100% of which goes to education. If we want to have more money for education, we need to be collecting more income tax, and in order to do that we need to attract businesses with a good transportation system.
He said we need about $20 billion for road construction in the next 10 years.
I asked him about the bonding solution that Jim Ferrin had touted in the debates earlier that day. Parley said that he personally is “not one for bonding.” He explained that Utah hasn’t bonded to fund roads before, but that we had bonded for buildings. He called Jim Ferrin the “smartest guy in the House,” but said that he disagreed with bonding for roads.
He then explained the importance of considering the difference between “one-time” money vs. “on-going” money. A surplus is “one-time” money and said in general we should avoid using “one-time” money to fund “on-going” expenses. A lot of other states build roads using “one-time” money. Utah, on the other hand, has put a lot of “on-going” money into building roads. He said tha one advantage of using “on-going” money for roads is that the amount can be adjusted during unexpected economic slowdown.
Education & Vouchers
As we discussed transportation, Senator Hellewell said that people often cite the statistic that among the states, Utah is #49 in funds per pupil. But what they fail to recognize is that Utah is _#1 in percent of the total state budget that goes to education. 67% of the total state budget goes into education!_
He also said that in other states the work of 60% of the population goes to fund 40% of the population in school. But in Utah, where we have larger families, the work of 40% of the population goes to fund 60% of the population that is in school.
At one point the Senator used the phrase “Keep education whole.” I had heard both Representative Ferrin, and Steve Sandstrom use that same phrase in the debates earlier that day, but I didn’t understand what it meant. I asked Parley what everyone meant by “keeping education whole?” He said that it means not taking any money currently alloted for education out to use it for other things.
I asked him about his position on education vouchers. He said “I support vouchers a whole bunch. It’s the best thing we can do for education.” He said that vouchers have passed the Senate every year but they always fail in the house by only a few votes. He says that teachers and public schools should support vouchers. Each school receives about $6000 dollars per pupil per year. The recent voucher bill would have given $2000 dollars to parents to use to put their kids in private education. The remaining $4000 dollars would have still gone to the public school where the child would have attended had he or she not gone to the private school. So the school would have been getting $4000 dollars without having to educate the student.
I thanked Parley Hellewell for his willingness to visit me personally and his thorough explanations of his views. I was impressed. He spoke about these subjects without notes and in response to my questions. He was articulate and clear without being pedantic or superior in the least.
It seemed that my previous notions were mistaken. He was not being run by the right wingers on his staff. He was very conservative, but thoughtful and realistic. If I had to give a label to the kind of strong conservatism he appeared to represent I would call him a Circumspect Conservative.
I’ll be interested to meet with his opponents, Jeremy Friedbaum and Margaret Dayton.