Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert spent the final night of the 2014 Legislature on Thursday enjoying his success in getting nearly all of his $13.3 billion budget passed — without a controversial and costly initiative from House Speaker Becky Lockhart.
"I'm obviously very pleased with the session and the results of the session," Herbert told the Deseret News in an interview, emphasizing the $345 million in new money for public and higher education, his top budget priority.
The governor, who mingled with staff, family and friends between a series of media interviews, was careful not to directly criticize Lockhart, a potential rival should he run for re-election.
However, Herbert did say he's moving up the timetable for deciding about making another run to sometime over the summer rather than waiting until early next year as planned.
"I'm clearly leaning toward running again. I'm putting myself in a position to do that," the governor said. "I'm certainly encouraged by a lot of people, which is nice."
There were plenty of bumps during the 45-day session, as notable for what lawmakers didn't get done as for they what did.
While lawmakers compromised on the state budget and Count My Vote, they steered clear or couldn't agree on controversial issues such as a statewide nondiscrimination law, raising the gas tax and Medicaid expansion.
During budget negotiations between the House and Senate GOP leadership late in the session, the outgoing Republican speaker from Provo gave up on her nearly $300 million education technology initiative.
Lockhart faced opposition to the hefty price tag from not only Senate Republicans but also the GOP governor. The Senate refused to spend more than $26 million, and Herbert threatened to veto the initiative if the cost exceeded $30 million.
The speaker, who is not seeking re-election and is seen as a possible challenger to the governor in 2016, also dropped her efforts to come up with an alternative to Medicaid expansion using state funds.
Deciding what to do about the nearly $300 million available to the state under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was one of the biggest issues that couldn't be resolved this session.
Competing Medicaid expansion plans from the House, Senate and the governor that surfaced during the session all failed to win significant support. In the end, the House and Senate determined there would be no agreement this session.
So Herbert said he'll try to strike a deal on his own plan, which requires federal waivers to use the money for a state-run program. He announced this week he's sending a team to Washington, D.C., Monday to begin negotiations.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he would have liked Herbert to go to Washington with a unified message from the Legislature. But "whatever he can negotiate with the federal government, there's not going to be consensus," he said.
Lockhart said "it remains to be seen" whether the House would be willing to even take a vote on what the governor is able to bring back during an anticipated special session of the Legislature later this year.
Herbert, though, said he thinks he can have a Medicaid plan in place by the end of the year that both the House and Senate would buy into.
This session, doing something about the state's dirty air was a top priority for many Utahns. Lawmakers passed several bills to address the problem, but it's an issue likely to be back with the winter inversion next year.
"A lot of our priorities were met," said Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, citing strides made on air quality issues.
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