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Utah lawmakers extend Medicaid to state's poorest, stymie medical marijuana plan

Published: Thursday, March 10 2016 11:20 p.m. MST

Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, yawns on the final day of the Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Legislature finally reached agreement on Medicaid expansion, one of last year's most contentious issues, voting in the final days of the 2016 session to extend the federal assistance program to the "poorest of the poor."

HB437, from House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, passed the Legislature with little drama, supported by community, business and political leaders, including the Democratic mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.

Democratic lawmakers, however, said the bill extending traditional Medicaid to some 16,000 Utahns who are homeless, in the criminal justice system, or have substance abuse or mental health issues, didn't go far enough.

Minority party members unsuccessfully pushed for the state to accept the full Medicaid expansion available under President Barack Obama's signature health care law to cover more than 100,000 Utahns and have vowed to continue the fight.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he will sign the bill.

"I’m grateful that we’re getting something. I'm grateful we have something on the table that is acceptable to everybody, and we’ll build on that," Herbert said. "I hope that’s not where we end, but I’m glad we’re starting. So let’s see what plays out."

The governor said how much more the state will be able to do in the future for Utahns in the so-called coverage gap, who earn below the federal poverty level but don't qualify for federal health care subsidies, depends on Washington.

"The variables out there are who's going to be in the White House and what happens with Congress and the Affordable Care Act" after the 2016 elections, Herbert said. "What I hope happens is we'll be given as a state more flexibility."

Medicaid was far from the only tough issue lawmakers tackled during the 45-day session that ended at midnight Thursday. But supporters of repealing the death penalty and expanding the scope of hate crimes weren't able to muster enough votes.

Efforts to legalize medical marijuana also faltered in the final hours of the session, while a bill that would require a woman to receive anesthesia for her fetus during any abortions after 20 weeks of gestation won approval.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made public statements on two issues during the session. It questioned a more comprehensive medical marijuana bill from Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, but had no objections to a go-slow approach offered by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.

The church also voiced concern about legislation on either end of the political spectrum that could upset the compromise lawmakers reached in 2015 to safeguard religious liberty and nondiscrimination in the workplace and housing.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, and the LGBT community blamed that position for killing a controversial proposal to strengthen Utah's hate crimes law by including sexual orientation, gender identity and other categories of people.

Other big issues had big price tags. Lawmakers set aside $4.5 million toward taking the federal government to court over control of public lands in Utah, part of a more than $15.1 billion budget that also gives state workers a 2 percent pay raise.

The Legislature made what advocates say was a “historic” investment in housing, shelters and services for Utahns experiencing homelessness.

HB436 appropriates $9.25 million in state and federal funds for the Housing and Homeless Reform Initiative, the first installment of a proposed $27 million, three-year funding plan. The bill passed both houses by a wide margin.