Legislative prelims open Utah District 69 representative's eyes
Christine Watkins may be a rookie legislator this year but she is a veteran when it comes to dedication.
For many years Watkins has dedicated herself to education, both through the states Uniserve program, in school districts and at Pinnacle Canyon Academy. Now she is dedicating herself to serving those she has been elected by in legislative District 69, which encompasses a large piece of eastern and southeastern Utah.
"After looking at what I had to do this year, I decided I would either be doing Pinnacle Canyon or my legislative district a disservice by trying to handle both, so I recently left my job as principal at Pinnacle and have pretty much dedicated myself toward being a representative to the people of southeastern Utah at the legislature," said Watkins in an interview on Wednesday morning.
Watkins may be new at the legislature this year but she has a long history of public service. A native Utahn, born in Logan, she earned a bachelor's degree at Utah State University, a masters in educational administration at the University of Utah and secured three certifications in special education from Brigham Young University. She taught elementary school for 22 years, worked as an education employee advocate at the Utah Education Association (UEA) for 10 years, and also served as a legislative lobbyist for UEA. Finally the last couple of years she had been the principal at Pinnacle Canyon Academy.
But while she has the experience of working with the legislature as a lobbyist, being on the side that has to listen to those that have concerns and agendas has been a new experience.
"There is a lot more to this job that meeting for a month and half in the winter at the state capitol and then going home for the rest of the year," she said. "My eyes have been opened by the myriad of meetings I have to attend all year long and also by the number of people who want to talk to me about issues and concerns. It takes a lot of time."
While Utah is one of six states in the union that have a purely part time legislature as described by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the jobs that representatives in both the senate and house have in the state add up to much more that just a part time presence.
"There are a lot of meetings we as rural legislators are left out of, but there are many we are invited to. David Hinkins (state senator from district 27) and I have been dividing up some of those meetings so we can attend as many as possible," she said.
Watkins has been assigned as a member of a number of various committees already. She is on the Workforce Services and Economic Development Committee, the Retirement and Independent Service Committee and the Natural Resources Committee. All of these assignments has her dealing with issues important to the eastern part of Utah. And she has already heard some things that concern her.
"Just yesterday while meeting with the Natural Resources Committee we had department heads make presentations to us concerning the budget cuts the state faces this year," she said. "We heard that one of the cuts the Division of Wildlife Services might have to make is the daily patrolling of Range Creek. They said that they may have to cut that out and let the East Carbon police department or the Carbon County Sheriff's office handle problems up there. I don't want to see that end because that could leave that area unprotected; it might also cost some jobs as well."
Watkins thinks that money that is in the coffers for road projects could subdue some of the budget cuts the state is thinking of making across the board. Meanwhile she says the state could still bond for some of the road improvements and that they could also take advantage of the $12 billion dollars that could be coming from President Obama's administration to Utah for shovel ready construction projects that will put people back to work.
"We had a meeting with all the house representatives one day and the speaker of the house told us no one in the room had experience in dealing with what we will be dealing with this year in terms of budget shortfalls," stated Watkins. "This year will be eye opening for everyone. All each of us can do is to vote for things that we think will benefit our areas and the state as a whole."
Watkins has one particular bill she is sponsoring that yet does not have a number on it; it concerns a loophole in a senate bill that was passed last year concerning sales tax.
"The way that bill is set up right now, with a loophole about mining machinery and some other kinds of sales tax collections could impact many of the towns in Carbon County very hard," she said. "It could affect everyone from Helper to Wellington. In fact Wellington could lose around 60 percent of its operating budget if that law continues in force. My bill would amend the senate bill to keep that from happening."
Watkins is also very protective of the College of Eastern Utah and what might happen there with state funds.
"CEU is a good deal for the people of the state of Utah," she said. "It is a good place to send students to get an education. I have talked to a number of legislators about how much more sizable cuts in CEU and the other small colleges budgets would affect their communities than cuts at the large universities would affect where they are located. I hope there are some things we can do to mitigate any cuts at CEU."
Watkins said she wants to hear from people and what they have to say about issues. She plans on continuing to carry on the tradition of being on the radio every week concerning what is going on during the legislative session and she also intends of producing a written report periodically that the newspapers in her area can print so people will know what is happening on capitol hill.
"I just want to do what is right for the people I serve and that includes everyone from San Juan County to Carbon County," she stated. "To do that I need my constituency to let me know what they are thinking."