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The following op-ed, written by our research intern Molly Davis, was published today in the Salt Lake Tribune.

In the digital era, our private lives are often stored within our mobile devices. In a surveillance state, law enforcement can access these devices like an open book.

While technology continues to change how people behave and interact, government policies often remain stagnant. And while laws and regulations usually don’t keep up, law enforcement agencies do a decent job—meaning that the government takes advantage of modern technology for surveillance and law enforcement, while privacy protections for you and I lag behind.

Consider the case of the stingray—a mobile phone surveillance gadget utilized by law enforcement to intercept and store a person’s phone calls, texts, emails, and location. These devices collect information from everyone in the vicinity, allowing the government to access private and potentially sensitive information about countless innocent individuals.

Up until 2014—seven years after the first iPhone was released—there was no clearly defined federal privacy protections regarding an individual’s electronic data. In Riley v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a search warrant was required in order to look through the digital contents of a person’s cell phone upon his or her arrest.  Note that this ruling applies only to arrested persons who have their phone confiscated when arrested; government agents routinely surveil people who have not been arrested.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017 | No comments

Is Utah ready for tiny homes?

The following op-ed, written by our policy director Michael Melendez, was published last week in the Deseret News.

The American dream of homeownership has had a rough time over the past 10 years — a housing bubble, economic recession, changing preferences among millennials and now a housing shortage here in Utah.

The number of people who opt to rent rather than buy a home is now at an all-time high, and prices are skyrocketing. Affordable housing has become so scarce that many around the country are looking at a new option: so-called “tiny homes.”

What up until the last few years seemed like a temporary fad has become an ever-growing phenomenon around the country, expanding far beyond the handful of TV shows that have highlighted tiny homes. Young couples just starting out and empty-nesters who are tired of all the upkeep of a large home increasingly see them as a cost-effective alternative.

Tiny homes tend to be smaller than 500 square feet and can be built on the ground or on wheels. They often consist of a loft bedroom, small bathroom, small kitchen and a common area. They can be customized, moved, and used for a variety of circumstances, including being powered using only solar power.

There is just one minor problem: most local governments do not allow them.

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We have previously proposed legislation—which received unanimous support—that requires the government to furnish data each time it takes a person’s property through asset forfeiture.

The latest report, compiling data for 2016, was just released by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

The report finds, among other things:

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Utah is one of the leading states for opiate overdose fatalities in the nation, and legislators struggle to find ways that this epidemic can be abated to save lives.

Yet at the same time, legislators refuse to legalize a plant that shows promise in reducing that overdose rate and providing relief to thousands more Utahns for whom cannabis shows a high potential, whether by alleviating pain, managing symptoms, or even reversing or altogether mitigating an underlying condition.

Throughout the state, sick and suffering individuals secretly consume cannabis for health reasons, yet do so at great personal risk, jeopardizing their employment, risking having police officers serve a no-knock warrant on their home, forfeiting their right to keep and bear arms, and giving the state a reason to potentially take their children away.

Utah’s drug laws must be amended to allow peaceful people to use cannabis for legitimate medicinal purposes.

Read More in our Public Policy Brief

As the media and public begin to focus more on taxpayer funding for government schools, one program with very little funding has had an enormous impact on the education those with special needs—an important demographic of children who can often be forgotten in government schools.

The Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship was established in 2005 by action of the Utah Legislature and the signature of Governor Jon Huntsman. It provides private school scholarships to K-12 students who have a wide variety of special needs. With a current appropriation of only about $5 million, it serves over 900 children who can then get the specialized education that they need from the institution of their parents’ choice.

Bearing the name of the son of one of the program’s greatest advocates, Cheryl Smith, the program has steadily grown since its inception and is administered by the Utah State Office of Education. The success of the program has been well documented in legislative hearings and reports. Some important statistics include:

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Salt Lake City, UT (June 6, 2017) — Today, a group calling themselves “Our Schools Now” announced the filing of a ballot initiative that, if successful, would increase the income and sales tax rates of hard-working and already over-taxed Utahns.

In response, Libertas Institute’s Director of Policy Michael Melendez issued the following statement:

The corporate elite of Utah have finally decided how they want to reach into taxpayers’ pockets, and, instead of offering any real solutions, they remain committed to the same worn-out, disproven tax hike band-aid.

Additional funding to government schools must be tied to a real change in the philosophy of education in classrooms.

This income and sales tax hike will hit lower- and middle-class Utahns the hardest at a time when their tax burden has increased substantially in recent years, such as for gas, property, and purchases.

We need to have a real discussion in Utah about the priorities for the state’s $16 billion budget. Instead, this initiative will be a major distraction—and one that existing data suggests will not actually increase education outcomes, as its proponents claim.

Libertas Institute’s president, Connor Boyack, has separately written about how past increases in education funding have not led to better outcomes.

Should enough signatures be gathered to place this issue on the ballot, our organization intends to educate Utah voters as to why this harmful tax increase will not lead to the promises and claims made by its supporters.

Interlocal agencies, independent entities, special service districts, Associations of Governments (AOG), and conservancy districts—each of these is a type of government-sponsored or -created organization given control of some aspect of administration, localized policy making, or government service. In short, they have control over a portion of your tax dollars and/or your life.

Who are these mysterious organizations that, up until recently, have hidden their operations in the shadows? To be clear, they hold some public meetings, report to the Utah Legislature periodically, and probably even have up-to-date websites. However, they probably would rather you not know about the size of their budgets, nor their too frequent misappropriation of funds.

The average Utahn might recognize these government organizations from the media attention they have received over the past few years:

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The following op-ed, written by our policy director Michael Melendez, was published this weekend in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Remember that time a couple years ago when the whole country thought that Utah solved chronic homelessness?

In light of the intense debate that has recently occurred regarding new homeless shelters, that appears to have been “fake news.” Unfortunately, Utah’s counting methods ended up giving everyone the wrong impression.

Fast forward to this year, where the Utah Legislature allocated $20 million to help fund the building of new homeless shelters, the locations of which spurred contentious debate (to put it lightly). All this disagreement among those trying to influence and decide how taxpayer resources are used to address this important issue may leave one wondering if there is a role for the free market and private charity to play

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The following op-ed, written by our president Connor Boyack, was published today in the Standard-Examiner.

Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson continues to advocate for a costly, destructive and failed “war on drugs.” He claims, in a written policy, that legalizing cannabis for medicinal use would “create thousands of victims.”

Has he not paid attention to the victims created by the criminalization he supports?

Even more audaciously, the sheriff claims that medical cannabis would “further the destruction of the family unit” because of addiction and “family dysfunction.” (Because prescription drugs don’t contribute to any of that, of course.)

Is the sheriff not paying attention to Utah’s opiate crisis, which claimed the lives of nearly 400 Utahns last year? Perhaps he does not know that according to The Journal of the American Medical Association, based on studies from other states that have legalized medical cannabis, that rate could plummet by 25 percent.

That’s around eight Utahns whose lives could be saved each month.

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With healthcare on the front of everyone’s minds as Congress continues to formulate a replacement to ObamaCare, here is an idea that could revolutionize the industry and drive costs down tremendously.

One of the largest factors driving up health care costs today is the lack of transparency of the true costs of health care services and the lack of incentives for consumers to pursue high quality, low-cost options. In short, a person doesn’t know how much a certain procedure or test costs and even if they did, they would have zero financial incentive to investigate where to find the best price for that health care service.

This is where having the “Right to Shop” comes into the picture.

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