Political Hardball on Healthy Utah, Prison Relocation

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As quite an athlete in his earlier years, Governor Gary Herbert still has the ability to pitch a fastball to brush back the House leadership and Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes over the issue of Healthy Utah – the Utah Department of Health’s effort to recapture Medicaid monies from the federal government.

Known as a way to cover some 60,000 plus Utahns who are now not able to qualify for Medicaid, the measure has been discussed for years and has come under scrutiny and debate in closed door meetings by the House majority where the Speaker has recently termed the plan a non-debatable “dead issue.”

That has not moved the Utah Governor, who is now throwing some heat.

In a day filled with blistering rhetoric that began at the Governor’s monthly televised news conference, Herbert restated his administration’s efforts as a “common sense approach” that would recover funds benefiting Utahns who have already been taxed for health care that some cannot presently access.

Herbert emphasized that Healthy Utah would provide funds to the state without further tax increases, adding that for the next two years the plan would function as a “pilot program,” so that Utah could work to make it “better and better.”‘

Healthy Utah does not leave “tens of thousands of Utahns in the lurch,” the governor quipped, implying that the House was doing just that by refusing to allow any further debate.

When asked if he would move on the matter by executive action if necessary and bypass the House, Herbert said that there should be a “complete and thorough debate on the merits,” but added that the House caucus, meeting in closed session, wasn’t even debating the current version of Healthy Utah – which the Governor calls “Healthy Utah 2.0.”

House Speaker Hughes readily admitted that the House was not yet on the same page regarding the executive branch’s current effort, which had been introduced with a Senate bill just days earlier.

In the art of business and politics, often deals need to be struck to move forward, so in response to reporters’ questions about the Utah State Prison relocation, (one of Speaker Hughes’ pet projects), Herbert denied playing hardball, saying “Look, we have 11 days to go [in the legislative session], We ought to all look for what is the best outcome and be statesmen. We ought to stand tall in our positions, whatever we decide them to be on the right or on the left. We ought to say ‘here’s my justification for it and let the chips fall where they may.’ But we ought to be open and transparent about it.”

A seven person commission has been reviewing options for the relocation of the facility now located in the southern Salt Lake Valley, “All the House Representatives and the Senators should be involved. A commission cuts out the executive branch,” Herbert noted. “If there’s a better place [for the prison] let’s move it but let the sunshine in, not just allow seven people to decide.”

The Utah Governor also referenced the political strategies of former U.S. Congressman and Dean of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Dingell (Democrat-Michigan). Quoting Dingell, Herbert said, ‘I’ll let you have the substance on the matter, if you let me have the process…'” still paraphrasing Dingell, “I’ll roll you every time.”

With that, he hurled another fastball to the plate: Speaking of prison relocation, Herbert said, “We don’t use the veto word all the time,” but noting that a veto is available to the executive branch, he continued, “…but Carbon County would like to have [the new prison]. If we need a new prison for more capacity and for additional rehabilitation facilities, there’s even plenty of land in Draper where the existing prison is now.” He suggested that there may be a 50-50 chance that the prison could stay in Draper, home of the House Speaker.

Herbert’s unexpected slider may have just changed the count as the Utah lawmakers close in on the 7th inning stretch.

When this was brought to the attention of the Speaker (as the Capitol press corps convened with the House leadership) a few of hours later, the Speaker immediately asked, “How quickly after you talked about [Healthy Utah] did he say that?”

Speaker Hughes, with his leadership team, then cited what he called “Dark money,” that has entered into the debate at the grassroots level, attempting to discredit Representatives who are balking at the Healthy Utah plan. As evidence, Hughes held a flyer authored by the Alliance for a Better Utah, an advocacy group endorsing the Governor’s Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion plan. Hughes vigorously defended his efforts at doing the people’s business and said that promoting a two-year “pilot program,” was “reckless,” and that he would not commit to any additional debate on the matter in the House.

With ten business days left in the legislative session, a scoreless tie is setting in before the legislative branch adjourns for the coming weekend. To avoid costly delays and further “opportunity costs,” the entire ballgame involving both Healthy Utah and prison relocation has to be decided by midnight on March 12 as a matter of Utah statute.

Of course, there is always the possibility of extra innings if Herbert decides to propose a special session.