Can House speaker be a 'real fighter' in governor's race?
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, started the 2014 Legislature swinging, but by the end of the session she'd dropped both her signature education technology initiative and Medicaid expansion alternative.
But political observers, including many of Lockhart's colleagues on Capitol Hill, say its too soon to count her out as a strong challenger to Gov. Gary Herbert in the 2016 gubernatorial race.
"What do you want in a leader? Don't you want a bold person?" asked Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, who previously served in House leadership with Lockhart. "I'm still a Becky Lockhart fan."
Lockhart, who is not running this year for reelection to the House seat she's held since 1998, has yet to talk about her political future. "I'm not biting," she told reporters recently when asked about 2016.
Still, she left little doubt she's eyeing the governor's office in her opening remarks to the House.
In a surprisingly critical speech delivered from the same podium in the House where Herbert gave his State of the State speech two days later, Lockhart slammed the governor as an "inaction figure."
"I was surprised that she took on the governor," longtime Deseret News pollster Dan Jones said. Jones, who has done polling for Herbert, said, "This has been one of the most — I don't want to use the word angry — divisive sessions."
Legislative budget discussions were dominated by speaker's efforts to replace textbooks with tablet computers in the classroom and reject the Medicaid expansion money available under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
While there hadn't been much interest in taking up tax increases in an election year for most lawmakers, the rift over the hefty price tag on Lockhart's education initiative pushed the Senate to pitch gas and property tax hikes to pay for it.
The cost of the initiative, which didn't surface until after the session was underway, started at close to $300 million and then was reduced to $200 million. Lockhart proposed diverting transportation funds to cover the bill.
The governor even stepped into the fray, threatening to veto the initiative if it exceeded $30 million — only slightly more than the $26 million the Senate was willing to spend.
Herbert declined in an interview on the last night of the session to analyze Lockhart's motives for launching the education technology initiative, something his office has already been studying.
The governor said the session was successful "in spite of anybody else's contrary points of view, or differences of opinion or personal ambition. That's the only way I measure it."
He said he doesn't give much thought to what other people "are trying to do and try to psychoanalyze or understand what's in their heart or mind. It's just a waste of time....Everybody has their own personality and their own way of doing things."
The budget stalemate stalled negotiations between the House and Senate for nearly a week before Lockhart gave up on her initiative. She had already abandoned the $35 million needed for her Medicaid expansion alternative.
Lockhart told reporters the House has a vision while the Senate only wanted "to make a deal," words that Senate insiders said mean she won't see much political support from them in the future.
"She did show she is a principled leader. She was given the option to trade principles for the bill and realized the principles were more important, i.e., not to raise taxes," Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said.
That could play well with the conservative GOP base, he and other observers noted.
"I think she has a good base out there who would be supportive of her efforts," House Minority Whip Tim Cosgrove, D-Murray, said. "The governor's done a good job. I'm not going to get between those two."
Menlove said Herbert's veto threat will be seen as a "little harsh" by some voters.
"I'll be brazen. I think the governor coming right out and saying, 'I'll veto that bill,' without really understanding what it could have been...I think it was an interesting shot," she said.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Lockhart was able to raise her profile with voters by using the speakership to confront her potential political adversary.
"It obviously brought her some attention, which is something she'll need," especially to take on a sitting governor, Burbank said. "My guess is, she's about where she wants to be."
A House Republican agreed.
"I think she has goals and certainly she would have preferred that she has passed some of her big ideas," the House Republican said. "But even if she didn't pass them, she can differentiate herself from Herbert."
But others said the tone the speaker set may have turned off potential supporters.
"I think it was a really hard session for her," one longtime lawmaker said. "That opening speech did not do her any good."
Cosgrove said the "big fissures" between the governor and the speaker made the legislative process this session "more challenging. It was probably a tougher atmosphere."
What was seen as Lockhart's political ambitions also spilt her fellow GOP lawmakers.
Not only were the House and Senate Republican leadership at odds, the House GOP caucus balked at backing the education initiative because of the big price tag as well as the Medicaid plan.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, tried to downplay the tension.
"Yes, I am running for governor in 2016," the Senate leader joked to reporters on the final day of the session. "That's a question you'll have to ask her, if she's going to run or not."
Lockhart also showed some humor on the subject.
"I know how to take a punch," she said. "You know the real fighters by how they react after they get hit."
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