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John Florez: Lawmakers should act with compassion

Published: Monday, Feb. 14 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Utahns take great pride in being a generous and compassionate state created by the pioneers. We've pulled together and looked after each other; it is that sense of community that is the hallmark of the Utah character. Today, Utah families are hurting — food banks running low, high home foreclosures, high unemployment and a poor economy. Are we losing our moral compass?

There now seems to be a growing lack of sensitivity about those suffering during tough times. Past generations in hard times pulled together; that was the ethos they embraced. A new ethos — lack of empathy — seems to mark the new generation of politicians. Their life experiences may be different from those of past generations. We now find a society more divided by age, income and zip codes. Life has become more impersonal and that limits our ability to share daily life experiences. Lawmakers advance policies from their experiences that often appear inconsistent with community values and even with other laws they pass. HB 211 "requires" volunteer work (an oxymoron) of Medicaid participants as a condition of using public dollars; it's "payback to the system." Lawmakers don't understand the intent of the program was to provide minimal health care for families.

They argue that volunteering is good for a person's self-esteem, without realizing the economic challenges families face in simply surviving. They argue that one must "pay back" if receiving government assistance; then why do they give businesses subsidies to come to Utah. The most recent is HB 99, which increases incentives for film companies to come here. Should the CEOs not be required to do volunteer service as "pay back" for receiving government subsidies? Where is the fairness in applying the "rule of law." Also, lawmakers are now proposing making it easier to access bank and tax records of Medicaid participants (HB256); so, should the same rule not apply to corporations?

It looks like lawmakers this session seem more eager to cut programs for those in need as a way to balance the state budget. It doesn't make sense. These are families that are an integral part of our community — our neighbors. Our elected leaders must exemplify the sense of compassion needed for societies to thrive. Lawmakers are now considering higher taxes on food, gas and transportation and are considering closing a school to help the deaf and blind. One state representative is proposing to ban utility companies from assessing customers $1.20 per year to assist low-income folks. How compassionate is that.

This generation is blessed with an unprecedented quality of life built out of hard work and sense of community: values of compassion and caring to help those in need. Lawmakers ought to be careful as they work to trim government spending. They should work creatively to strengthen the human services system, public and private organizations (churches, businesses and non-profits) created over many years to meet the needs of families and children. Policy making requires seeking what is in the public's interest and being fair and equal — not an easy task. It is disheartening to see good people willing to seek public office often lose sense of what they know is right in their heart, and what they learned from their parents. They deserve our support as well as our loving criticism.

For lawmakers to place a greater burden on those who seek the public's help may be exacting the greatest price any human must endure — the loss of dignity. Our society will survive hard times, but the greatest loss might well be that of our collective soul.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net.

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