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.
Lockhart's speech also included calls for technological innovations in education and action on air quality that focuses on voluntary measures to curb driving, as well as a rejection of an increase in the state's 24.5-cent gas tax, unchanged since 1997.
“A gas tax increase is neither fresh, nor new, nor right,” Lockhart said, proposing instead that lawmakers look for other ways to fund the state's transportation infrastructure.
Herbert has expressed frustration that lawmakers appear to be putting off that discussion until after this November's election.
Niederhauser said lawmakers need to address transportation funding, but said the chance for a tax increase of any kind is "very low."
In his opening speech, Niederhauser told his colleagues that returning to fundamental principles is essential to securing individual rights and free government.
"There are voices which are often convincing that weaken the pillars of the past in favor of the new world that we face. Old-fashioned are the adherents of a time gone by," he said.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave the opening prayer in the Senate. The Calvary Baptist Church choir sang "Amazing Grace" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
In a 10-minute video posted to the LDS Church's website last week, Elder Christofferson said the state's liquor laws are effective and don't need to be changed.
Lockhart, however, has called the required barrier to drink preparation in restaurants "weird" and said again Monday the so-called "Zion Curtain" needs to go.
Asked about going against the church's position, the speaker said, "I’m comfortable having my own position on all kinds of issues."
Lockhart also said she might not vote again for Amendment 3, the state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman that was struck down by a federal judge. The case is now being appealed.
"I'd have to really think about both parts of it," Lockhart said, referring specifically to the portion of the amendment that bars legal recognition of any other domestic union.
In the midst of the first-day pomp and politics, there also was a surprise. Sen. Luz Robles' fiancé, Juan Carlos Escamilla, who serves in the Arizona Legislature, proposed to the Salt Lake City Democrat on bended knee in the Senate chamber. Robles said yes.
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