Jonathan Johnson: End ‘Representational Asymmetry’ in Utah politics

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) In this Sept. 12, 2018, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a news conference at the Utah state Capitol in Salt Lake City. Herbert wants to add new sales taxes on services while cutting the overall rate to the tune of $200 million, part of a reform effort he says will be a "heavy lift" but is essential for the state's economic future. Herbert outlined the idea Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, while introducing his plan for the state's $19 billion budget.

In the legislative session just ended, a massive tax reform bill got tabled.

Weighing in at 260 pages of nightmarish complexity, House Bill 441 was launched too late, wobbled badly in hearings and was finally carried out on a stretcher while the governor and other politicians acted like the public outcry was just a simple misunderstanding. They pledged to go around the state now and “listen.”

Translation: It’s going to get an IV placed and come roaring back in special session.

I won’t question why the bill had large exceptions for special interests, was promoted by simplistic analysis and floated by overinflated rafts of political sloganeering. No. Others have already done that.

Instead, while we exhale, and before the bill returns let’s talk now about how this happens.

Now politicians want to listen. One could question why that didn’t happen before, but let’s at least be grateful. Yet at the same time, let’s be smart.

Let’s use the HB441 fiasco to talk about why not one in 10 – or maybe not one in 10,000 — Utahns really knew what HB441 would do to/for them personally.

That difference, the difference between public and legislative knowledge is “Representational Asymmetry.” Representational Asymmetry happens when politicians and insiders are far more informed than the public. It happens all the time, and it needs to stop.

In the HB441 push, the Legislature, governor, tax commissioners and lobbyists were well-informed. The public was in the dark.

Is that any way to run a state?

And, when the public outcry tabled the bill, only now we hear about “listening?”

I want to issue a friendly challenge to the government: Teach first, listen after.

Yes, teach first. Teach both the short- and long-term impacts, both to local governments and individuals. And teach taxpayers about how it will impact them personally, do not use some hypothetical “average taxpayer guy or gal” who only represents a tiny fraction of the population. Teach the taxpayers the bill’s consequences to people like them.

Impossible, you say? No. Government could do this easily. How?

Businesses do it all the time. When companies raise funds they are required to make full fact disclosures — not just what’s favorable, but the good, bad, and the ugly. Afterwards, they go on the road and teach and discuss those facts.

Though the comparison is not exact, in proposing massive changes to our tax structure, the government is “fundraising” and taxpayers are the “investors” — albeit forced investors. Therefore, the government ought to hold itself to the same standard. There’s no excuse not to. Why?

Because today’s technology puts powerful tools for what I’m suggesting squarely in the hands of the politicians if they want to really teach – especially when different bill elements impact taxpayers differently.

Truth be told, most government websites are thinly disguised re-election tools. And even those that aren’t, are often navigation nightmares or largely unhelpful. They are not true teaching tools.

Technology’s teaching tools are always simple and interactive.

For example, instead of just showing just a single “average” taxpayer impact, an interactive website could help each taxpayer learn the bill’s consequence to themselves individually.

The government has the data. That part is done. The taxpayer could simply answer some survey questions, hit a button and let the technology teach him or her about their personal impact. No more guesswork.

This would be true also for the impact on different local governments and communities — rural, suburban or urban.

So, I challenge Gov. Gary Herbert to use the HB441 fiasco to take us in a new direction — first, teach the public with technology, and then listen after. Deploy a website that would do this, and do it well.

We can strike the malignant roots of Representational Asymmetry by teaching, starting with HB441. Make it a practice going forward. We could bring this and other complex legislation into broad daylight, well in advance of any legislative session and use teaching technologies to do it. Educate first; listen second.

It would be revolutionary. It would be a first in the USA – maybe even the world.

And it would be high time.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah businessman Jonathan Johnson holds a press conference during his 2016 campaign for governor of Utah.

Jonathan Johnson is a Utah businessman and former GOP gubernatorial candidate.