A Utah lawmaker wants changes to the state's child care laws, which he says give school-based, nonprofit day care programs an unfair advantage over private providers.
"It isn't right and I think we should change this as a Legislature," Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, told lawmakers Wednesday during a committee meeting.
Anderson didn't mention that he is the owner of ABC Great Beginnings, which owns and operates seven private child care facilities.
Not only that, Anderson draws a paycheck as executive director of the Utah Private Child Care Association, the trade group for the private day care industry.
Despite his vested interest in the industry, Anderson said he doesn't think he has a conflict of interest by championing the cause of his profession at the Legislature.
"I prefer to say I have an area of expertise," he said after the meeting. "We all have conflicts. We're a part-time Legislature."
Anderson did include his profession on his conflict-of-interest disclosure, and that serves as sufficient disclosure, he said.
Indeed, under Utah law, lawmakers are only required to disclose conflicts and don't need to recuse themselves from dealing with issues that might result in a financial benefit to the legislator.
David Irvine, an attorney with the group Utahns for Ethical Government, said almost nobody reads the written conflict of interest disclosures and it would be nice if legislators also declared their conflicts verbally at meetings.
"Clearly if somebody is saying, 'As a Legislature we need to take formal action on [an] issue because it's a huge problem,' and … he's got a pretty significant financial interest in putting the screws to whatever program he wants to kill off, I think everybody, including his colleagues, ought to know that," Irvine said.
In Anderson's case, he said his day care businesses have felt the sting of unfair competition with public child care facilities. Those school-based centers, he said, are generally housed in schools and aren't required to pay property taxes, aren't licensed by the state, and don't have the same start-up costs. In addition, he said, they are allowed to send marketing material home with parents, while private providers are not given access to schools.
"It's just a way to generate revenues and unfairly compete with the private sector," Anderson said of the programs.
Pat Marino, the president of the UPCCA and owner of Lit'l Scholars Child Development Center, said taxpayers are being forced to subsidize the school-based providers and private providers can't compete.
"It's my persuasion that there's an assault on the private sector by public sector partners with unfair competition," he said. "In essence, we pay their bills and they get the breaks."
But Brenda VanGorder, director of preschool services for Granite School District, disputed Anderson's characterization. The schools aren't licensed, she said, because the schools are already regulated and it would be duplicative to put another layer of rules on the day care facilities. "Being license-exempt does not mean unregulated. We have lots of regulations," she said.
The schools are required to educate disabled students over age 3 alongside typical students. So there is an opportunity for the typical students to enroll in the classes to meet the requirement.
And Rich West, CEO of the YMCA which runs one of the programs that Anderson singled out said his agency won a competitive bid to run child care programs in Granite School District.
Pamela Atkinson, an advocate for low-income families, said she has worked with one program in particular providing after-school help to children who otherwise would be going home to an empty houses or out on their own.
Anderson said he is interested in other areas of government that could be privatized, as well.
"Anyone who experiences the same thing my industry experiences," he said, "is welcome to contact me." Conflict of interest
Utah law defines conflict of interest as:
"An action that is taken by a regulated officeholder that the officeholder reasonably believes may cause direct financial benefit or detriment to the officeholder, a member of the officeholder's immediate family, or an entity that the officeholder is required to disclose under the provisions of this section, and that benefit or detriment is distinguishable from the effects of that action on the public or on the officeholder's profession, occupation, or association generally."
The law requires disclosure of a conflict, but does not prohibit a lawmaker from voting on or sponsoring legislation that would benefit them personally.