Tribune Editorial: Utah’s congressional delegation should back downwinders

We’re ready to spend anything for war, little for its victims.

(AP file photo) This July 16, 1945, photo shows an aerial view after the first atomic explosion at Trinity Test Site, N.M. U.S. senators from New Mexico and Idaho are making another push to expand the federal government’s compensation program for people exposed to radiation following uranium mining and nuclear testing carried out during the Cold War. Utah's delegation is opposed.

“Let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

— Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

The United States is good at paying for war — current annual Department of Defense budget, $841.4 billion — but not so good at paying to aid those who have been harmed by it.

Members of Congress who vote against any weapons program risk getting labeled as unpatriotic.

But propose compensation for service members who were sickened by Agent Orange in Vietnam, or by burn pits in Iraq, or for first responders who became ill and died from contaminated air at the site of the World Trade Center, and some can only complain about the cost.

Witness that the entire Utah congressional delegation is opposed to the newest version of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

Utah Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee shamefully voted against the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate, 69-30, March 7. They said the estimated $50 billion over the six-year life of the bill was too much.

Utahns should contact their representativesBlake Moore, Celeste Maloy, John Curtis and Burgess Owens — and demand that they support the new RECA. The fact that none of them now backs it is appalling.

RECA first became law in 1990, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch leading the way. It provided compensation for people in Utah and a few other states suffering from the extraordinary number of cancer cases linked to being downwind of open-air nuclear weapons testing, from 1945′s Trinity test through the 1960s.

The many thousands of people affected have become known as the downwinders. They are casualties of war, the Cold War, just as much as are those who were maimed or killed in combat.

They have borne the battle. Except they didn’t volunteer, weren’t in uniform, and, like the rest of us, were lied to by their own government about how dangerous those tests really were.

The original RECA only applied to those living in a small number of counties, vastly underestimating the continent-wide spread of radioactivity, and only to those suffering from specific ailments. It also didn’t include anyone in other parts of the country exposed to radiation from mining, refining and storage of nuclear materials.

The proposed extension of the law would remedy those shortcomings and raise the per-person benefit from $50,000 to $100,000. Which, for a case of terminal cancer, ain’t much.

It’s the least we can do. But Lee and Maloy, among others, don’t even want to do that.

They only want to extend the existing, insufficient, RECA, which expires next month, for two more years. It is as if some in Congress want to keep stalling until all those in need of aid have died.

You might think a bill to help Americans who were harmed by their own government — the dreaded Deep State — would be right in Mike Lee’s wheelhouse.

But Lee also opposed extending aid for the Ground Zero first responders. Lee and Romney both opposed legislation to help veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffering from the effects of toxic burn pits, counting pennies against human lives.

Yes, all that costs money. But we should not think of it as spending so much as being what it truly is, a debt we owe.

Grading teachers and vouchers may be difficult, but we must do our best

Counting costs and benefits isn’t always a neat and tidy exercise.

Consider the accountants who recently told their bosses on the Utah Legislative Audit Subcommittee that a new program intended to retain teachers by giving the best of them a bonus of up to $10,000 doesn’t lend itself to “objective” measurement.

True. But a lot of things in life are judgement calls. Including, often, the grades that teachers assign to their students. Including raises given elsewhere in government and the private sector.

The Utah Education Association has looked askance at the plan, arguing that teachers are supposed to work collaboratively, not jostle for limited resources.

Maybe. But competition is a fact of life in the real world. And our educators should be professional enough that we won’t see the English teacher undercutting the math teacher, who is bad-mouthing the Spanish teacher.

And we should have confidence that parents, principals and others involved will take the process seriously and seize the opportunity to reward the truly inspiring teachers among us.

Our teachers deserve more money, and the best teachers deserve it most of all. Getting more public school spending out of this Legislature, in any form, should be counted as a victory.

So does the fact that the program also boosts the pay of teachers in what the state considers “high poverty schools,” where the challenge is the greatest.

The only way to know is to give this bonus program a try. Sic the auditors on it again in five years and we may hope to see what, if anything, it has bought us.

Those same auditors should also be keeping an eagle eye on the first allocation of the Utah Fits All voucher program. If lawmakers will let them.

The program offers households up to $8,000 per child — up to $82 million altogether — to use for anything that smells like education. Not just private school or homeschooling, but also ballet lessons or therapy.

The whole point is that there are few standards and no benchmarks for success. It’s mostly a front in the culture wars, a way to deny that public dollars should go to public schools.

But some of the families benefiting feel they’ve been given a much-needed chance to help children who, in their view, weren’t thriving in public schools.

It is good that all of the first year’s grants went to families that meet the definition of low-income — $60,000 a year for a family of four. That already well-off households won’t get reimbursed for tony private academies or country club memberships.

This is a program that simply begs to be audited, deeply and often. Republican lawmakers who generally favor oversight of government spending should insist on it.