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House speaker criticizes governor in opening address to Utah Legislature

Published: Monday, Jan. 27 2014 5:36 p.m. MST

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, waits for a press availability to begin in her office at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City, Monday, Jan. 27, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, kicked off the first day of the 2014 Legislature on Monday with tough words for Gov. Gary Herbert, calling for an energetic leader, “not an inaction figure.”

Lockhart also slammed the governor’s announcement last week that he had taken the option of “doing nothing” about the Medicaid expansion available to the state under the Affordable Care Act off of the table.

“I cannot support and I do not understand why anyone would propose to saddle Utah any further with Obamacare,” the speaker said in her address to the House chamber, calling the additional federal subsidy a trap for the state.

“It’s an out in the open bait-and-switch, guaranteed to leave us worse off and sooner than we think,” Lockhart said.

Utah should stamp the offer "return to sender,” she said.

House members repeatedly applauded the speaker, who has said publicly this is her last session as a legislator and is widely seen as considering a run for governor in 2016.

Lockhart delivered her speech from the same podium at the front of the chamber where Herbert will give his State of the State speech Wednesday evening, instead of from the speaker's dais.

She even got a shout of “woo” when she urged lawmakers to “encourage the governor to lead and not just follow, to be innovative and not just reactive. We need energy in the executive, not an inaction figure in the governor’s office.”

Herbert responded to Lockhart's remarks in a brief statement.

"I want to welcome the Legislature back into general session and look forward to working with them," he said. "I hope we can all set aside politics and political ambition and focus on the work of the people of Utah."

Lockhart's "inaction figure" comment drew an awkward laugh from Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, when he was told about it later.

"That's laying down the gauntlet, isn't it?" he said. "It might be empowering the Senate, so we're OK with that."

GOP Senate leaders say they want to make a decision on Medicaid expansion this session.

"We have to make sure we can afford whatever program we move forward with because of the uncertainty in the federal government," said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe.

The speaker later told reporters her speech wasn't just aimed at the governor.

"All of us need to be action figures — all of us," Lockhart said, describing it as her duty to set a tone for the session.

She declined to say when she intends to announce her political plans. Herbert has also not yet announced whether he will seek another term.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Lockhart's speech makes it clear she's interested in the governor's job.

"If you're going to criticize the sitting governor, usually there's some motivation," he said.

Burbank said while it's no surprise the speaker would attempt some "political maneuvering" in her annual address, she does have to be careful not to put the House in a difficult position.

"If it comes down to the session being you either take the speaker's side or the governor's side, that complicates things," the professor said, especially if the session becomes seen as promoting her candidacy.

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