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Gov. Herbert's new chief of staff brings D.C. experience but 'no drama'

Published: Saturday, July 12 2014 6:19 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Justin Harding's first assignment as Gov. Gary Herbert's new chief of staff was to sit in on meetings in Washington, D.C., about the governor's proposed Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion.

But getting the Obama administration to approve using nearly $300 million in Medicaid expansion funds for a state-run program is just the start of what Harding hopes to help the governor accomplish.

Harding, who spent the past 14 years in the nation's capital working for members of Utah's congressional delegation, brings his Washington experience to the top job as Herbert prepares to lead the National Governors Association.

Utah's governor will be named the NGA's vice chairman this weekend in Nashville, Tennessee. A year from now he'll take over as chairman, a position expected to increase Herbert's national clout at the same time he's running for re-election.

"It certainly gives the governor increased stature and standing with his colleagues at the national level, and that benefits Utah," Harding said, by bringing new attention to the state. "That's a critical advantage that we have over other areas."

However, he said Herbert's recent announcement that he will run again in 2016 hasn't affected how that advantage is being used.

"I've never known him to stick his finger into the winds to see which way they're blowing," Harding said of the governor. "We're not looking through a political prism right now."

At last month's meetings in Washington, which included a stop at the White House, Harding said he sensed the Obama administration was "open and receptive" to Herbert's proposal, which requires federal waivers.

The proposal would provide health care coverage to low-income Utahns, including those who do not qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, unless the state accepts the Medicaid funds.

"The governor is an effective advocate for the state in Washington. He does very well back there. He has great respect. I saw that firsthand in the meetings that I was a part of," Harding said.

That increased political influence should also help the state in another key federal issue — the ongoing and often contentious debate over public lands in Utah controlled by the federal government, Harding said.

"I wouldn't describe it as a fight," he said. "It is an opportunity for Utah to demonstrate that it is a leader at the national level of coming up with solutions" that allow both conservation and natural resource development.

The governor's office, he said, is backing an initiative by members of Utah's congressional delegation to preserve some of the public lands while opening up others to development.

Other proposals to take advantage of Herbert's new national role and Harding's experience in Washington may be coming. Herbert will have his own initiative as head of the NGA.

"Public lands could be part of it," Harding said, but Herbert's signature issue will likely be broader. "It needs to be appealing to not just Western governors, but to governors across the nation and not just to Republicans, but Democrats as well."

As leader of the nation's governors, Harding said, Herbert will focus on sharing what he calls the "Utah model," such as his Medicaid expansion alternative, to help other states.

"We will do our very best to represent the good things that are happening in Utah to our colleagues across the country so they might learn from the successes of Utah and apply those best practices in their states," Harding said.

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