Utah House Rules Committee Receives Media Protest After Closed Meeting

Representative Jim Dunnigan (Republican - Taylorsville)
Representative Jim Dunnigan (Republican – Taylorsville)

Late on Friday, the Utah House Minority made an effort to define Utah’s House members who were backing either Governor Herbert’s Medicaid expansion plan called “Healthy Utah,” or the lesser, “more efficient” proposal called “Utah Cares.”

These ongoing negotiations represent Utah’s effort with the federal government to recapture tax monies budgeted for Medicaid expansion. The debate surrounding the proposals has been rancorous and the subject of much public interest.

Since there are many in the state who do not qualify for benefits from either private insurance or traditional Medicaid, “Healthy Utah” and “Utah Cares” are competing proposals that are presently awaiting legislative approval to fill the Medicaid gap. One covers more people more comprehensively (Healthy Utah) and the other is termed “more sustainable,” (Utah Cares).

The move on Friday, initiated by Representative Justin Miller (Democrat – Salt Lake) created some serious heartburn for legislators and for House leadership because it effectively exposed those opposed to the Governor’s plan with a House vote.

Several House Republicans defected from the ranks to vote in favor of the Governor’s plan and today the consequences were written and passed unanimously out of the Rules committee. Some, like Representative Eric K. Hutchings, (Republican – Salt Lake) were visibly upset as they left the House caucus room that Friday night.

House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan (Republican – Taylorsville) acted to open a bill file in response to the insurrection that night and Monday the result was introduced to the Rules Committee as House Resolution 6 – House Rules Resolution on Bills. The Rules Committee posted the resolution as the only item on its agenda early on Monday, but the draft of the bill wasn’t available for scrutiny until the committee actually convened.

Representatives from Utah media were held outside of the House lounge where the Rules committee was hastily assembled in an effort to get HR6 onto the House floor for a vote, thus thwarting any subsequent procedure like that allowed last Friday.

The key provision to the HR 6 amendment to the House procedures is the requirement that two-thirds of the available representatives approve a similar maneuver in the future. Last Friday, it only took the minority to force the vote and put each of the Representatives on the record. The vote by the entire House failed to lift the Healthy Utah bill from Rules, but not before revealing everyone’s position amidst ongoing debate.

As details emerged about the House effort on HR6 early on Monday, reporters were puzzled as to where the Rules Committee would be meeting to conduct the mandatory business prior to getting the procedural amendments approved. When the location was eventually determined, press representatives from several media outlets were not allowed access to the area where Rep. Mike Noel (Republican – Kanab) was conducting the meeting… a clear violation of “open meeting” requirements in the state law.

Lisa Roche of the Deseret News told Noel, “Mr. Chairman, may I just make a protest here; we were kept out in the hallway and not allowed in here… I don’t know why that was but it was really frustrating. We were kept out in the hallway by the communications director and not allowed in. When there’s a meeting in the part of the [Capitol] that we don’t have access to, we need someone to make sure that we can get here.” Her concerns were met with incredulous, non-verbal responses but no apologies or explanations until Rep Noel said, “Well that’s unfortunate, did you have some questions about the bill?” …he agreed to address her concerns but not until after he had adjourned the meeting.

The Rules committee functions as a traffic light and organizational valve that assigns specific legislation to committees and provides determination as to what bill proposals get heard by committees. All of this must occur before debate by the entire House or Senate. HR6, sponsored by Representative Dunnigan, was on a very fast track to be advanced before the entire legislature adjourns for the year on Thursday, March 12 at midnight.

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