Park Record 2020 Voter Guide: House District 53
The Nov. 3 election will be conducted primarily through mail-in balloting. The deadline to register online to vote is Oct. 23, with ballots slated to be arriving to registered voters this week. For more information, visit the website of the Summit County Clerk’s Office at summitcounty.org/281/Voter-Registration-Elections.
With Election Day approaching on Nov. 3 and mail-in ballots on their way to voters, The Park Record asked candidates to answer a series of questions on topics important to Summit County residents. Click here for the Senate District 19 race, here for the House District 28 race, here for the House District 54 race and here for the First Congressional District race.
Utah House District 53: Kera Birkeland (Republican) vs. Cheryl Butler (Democrat)
• What are your qualifications for office and why are you running?
Birkeland: As the current representative for House District 53, I have created relationships within the legislature that allow me to be effective and efficient. I am experienced and ready to tackle the issues before us. My background positions me well to understand the lives and needs of Utahns. Utah is well known for its enterprising spirit. I have owned several small businesses, including a highly regulated state-licensed childcare center. I know how unnecessary regulations can strangle fledgling small businesses. As the former Vice Chair of the Utah Republican Party and a former County Party chair, I understand how Utah politics work and how to stand behind your principles while still getting things done. My life experiences have cultivated a belief in accountability, hard work, and transparency. I am running for House 53 because many Utahns have cut back on their expenses and are learning how to get by on less. It is time for the government to do the same.
Butler: I graduated with a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Harvey Mudd College and Business Economics from Claremont McKenna College. I worked 34 years, as a successful engineer and senior manager for a Fortune 15 energy company. I have been a featured speaker on risk decision making and major incident investigation at industry conferences around the world. I have experience negotiating regulations and legislation with local and national governments. I also have a lifetime of demonstrating care and compassion as a wife, mom of five, grandma of two and through my community service. Over the last 30 years, I coached kids’ soccer teams, tutored and mentored students, started two new 4H clubs, and served on the school board. I currently serve on the Board of Directors of Habitat for Humanity, teach ESL to recent immigrants, and spend time encouraging young people to pursue careers in STEM through the Society of Women Engineers. I also serve as the Community Services Director for the Park City Sunrise Rotary. It is this passion for community service that led to my desire to run for public office. I believe that we must stand up and work for change when we see it is needed.
• How would you assess the state’s response to COVID-19? What specific actions undertaken by state officials have you agreed or disagreed with?
Birkeland: As of October 1, we have seen 459 total deaths statewide. While these deaths are tragic to all of Utah, our “deaths per 100,000 of population” figure is 14 — the 7th lowest in the nation. Certain policies, such as the Governor’s decision to call for “new” states of emergency when the Legislature declines to renew the existing emergency status are examples of executive overreach. While I appreciate that the Governor has not imposed a statewide mask mandate, insisting on such a policy in K-12 schools when many counties are “green” is an unnecessary use of executive power. I believe in local control, and such decisions can and should be made at the local level.
Butler: The daily updates and dashboards by the state and county epidemiologists and health departments have been excellent. I support the Governor’s attempts to advocate for greater mask usage, and to require masks in public buildings. The state has also successfully funneled PPE and other supplies to local governments and worked to provide relief to our business community through loans and grants. I do not support the state legislature’s repeated efforts to undercut our dedicated public health officials and their departments. The legislature’s creation of a redundant legislative committee that supercedes the public health officials, is like creating a legislative committee to overrule the fire chief in the middle of a forest fire. And I disagree with the no-bid state contracts that gave millions of dollars to companies for apps that didn’t work and testing that couldn’t meet standard protocols.
• While Utah has withstood the economic turbulence brought on by the coronavirus pandemic better than many states, the crisis nonetheless has been devastating. What specific policies should the Legislature implement to hasten the recovery?
Birkeland: While in the legislature, my focus will continue to be on allowing local governments the control to do as they deem necessary. Utah is vast. Some of our counties are in the green while others have remained in orange. It is imperative that COVID-related regulations are overseen by the government closest to the people. As a state, we need to continually provide resources, information, and educational tools to help counties create a safe and healthy environment. In the Utah House, I will continue to evaluate the tax burden on Utah families and look to reduce this burden rather than adding to it. State and county tax revenue will naturally increase as businesses and families begin to thrive.
Butler: As our Chamber of Commerce says, we should “stay safe to stay open.” The Legislature’s highest priority is to provide for the health and safety of the public. As we successfully protect public health, the economy will continue to recover. As the pandemic reestablishes itself, the recovery will falter. To protect the public, we need more testing, PPE, and continued health information campaigns. The state legislature should set the example by demonstrating mask wearing, handwashing and social distancing. There are other areas where the legislature’s support is needed. Testing and contact tracing systems still have major gaps, with families reporting that multiple tests are not covered by insurance or easily available. And some employees with COVID are having to go to work, because sick leave policies are not sufficient. Our schools and other critical facilities need updated HVAC systems and high risk individuals need N95 masks.
• Skyrocketing home and land values in the Wasatch Back have put pressure on farmers, ranchers and land planners as growth and development continue to move into rural areas. How can the Legislature help keep the area’s heritage alive while the pressure to sell and subdivide land continues to mount?
Birkeland: Development on the Wasatch Back is inevitable, and certain matters need to be addressed. Zoning matters. We never want to infringe upon landowners’ rights. We need to be forward-thinking to preserve our lands. However, I strongly believe it is not the role of the State Legislature to get involved in local decision making. Who better to maintain an area’s heritage than the people who live there? I will work with local leaders, but ultimately, the decisions are theirs. I understand the impact of growth across our state, I understand the complexity of upholding private property rights and planning for responsible economic development in a way that is appealing to the community. The State Legislature can not possibly understand the nuance of local decisions the same way that the county or city-level government does. This is an important concern, but it is a local one.
Butler: Growth and development are serious concerns for all District 53 voters and are currently being reviewed by local planning commissions in each county. The state legislature should generally leave decisions on the amount and style of growth in the hands of our local communities. For example, Park City has a detailed general plan that is significantly different from the Eastern Summit County plan. These differences are completely appropriate, with Park City focusing on protection of its mining heritage and Eastern Summit County focused on its agricultural roots. The state legislature can assist by supporting conservancy efforts, and ensuring that growth is done responsibly. For example, not all counties require concurrency letters to ensure water resources are adequate before new developments are approved.
• Utah has largely been spared from the devastating wildfires plaguing the West Coast these past years, though hundreds of thousands of acres have burned here in that time and the East Creek fire this summer grew to more than 65,000 acres in the national forest land in District 53. What specific policies should the Legislature pursue to address the threat of a “megafire” here? Where does climate change fit into this conversation?
Birkeland: I am not opposed to a scientific conversation about climate change, but I believe the Legislature’s actions must be within their proper role. I will work with our federal delegation and the BLM to increase proper forest management. Healthy forests are crucial to our wellbeing and our health. In addition to advocating for forest management, we need to provide proper maintenance of power grid infrastructure, ensuring rural fire departments are adequately funded, staffed, and trained, and encouraging safe practices for campfires and other recreational activities. With more information coming out that arsonists played a role in starting the West Coast fires, it would also be useful to re-evaluate relevant judicial consequences to ensure any would-be arsonists in this area are adequately deterred.
Butler: It appears climate is impacting the fire season, with many locations experiencing larger, more frequent fires as we also see rising area temperatures. House District 53 has a number of communities in Morgan, Summit, Duchesne and Daggett counties rated “medium or high risk” to a wildland fire. The state legislature should ensure that forest management efforts are appropriately funded and pursued by the various state and federal agencies involved, including the BLM, National and State Parks and Forests. Encouraging homes and businesses that are in the urban/wildland interface to have defensible space will limit losses as will greater use of fire resistant building materials like roofing. Support for inter-agency planning and drills is essential. And Utah should consider adopting the latest version of Wildland Urban Interface code.
• Please differentiate yourself from your opponent.
Birkeland: I am the best candidate to achieve the goals and needs of our district. As the current House Representative, I have the relationships with the Democrats and the Republicans in the State Legislature, as well with our federal delegation, to protect the rural and diverse values of District 53. I am uniquely positioned to continue to be an effective legislator. I am pro-business, pro-health, safety and wealth fare, and pro-local control. It has been an honor to be your representative and I ask for your vote.
Butler: Experience matters. I have over 30 years experience with a Fortune 15 company, 30 years as a wife, mom and grandma and over 50 years serving my local community. I have written, reviewed and negotiated laws and regulations at the local, state and national level in multiple countries. Through these efforts, I have gained substantial skills and understanding. Two examples highlight the differences between my opponent and myself. While I am against raising our taxes, I understand that some existing taxes are important and should stay in place. However, my opponent supports completely eliminating the Payroll Tax, which provides funding for Social Security and Medicare. I will always support our Seniors who have paid into these programs for decades, and deserve to see their savings. Secondly, unlike my opponent, I wholeheartedly support the RAP tax which provides funding for our trails, parks, Sundance, Egyptian Theatre and so many other programs.
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