Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. asked lawmakers Monday to come up with $2 million for emergency dental services for Utah's most vulnerable Medicaid patients a request legislative leaders said may be in trouble.
That was the only controversial item on the governor's agenda announced for Wednesday's special session scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Earlier that day, lawmakers will hear from visiting Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Finding the funding that the governor wants "is going to be extremely difficult," Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said. "There is a question whether or not he's got enough votes to get it done."
The governor's office anticipates the $2 million which would offer emergency services to only aged, blind and disabled Utahns would come from money left over from the general session, Huntsman's spokesman Mike Mower said.
"We feel like this is a worthwhile emergency service that needs to be addressed," Mower said. "We've significantly narrowed the category so we're dealing with those who have the most pressing need for service."
Valentine, though, questioned whether there was enough money available. "We spent everything we had in the general fund," he said. Lawmakers had a record $1 billion in extra cash to spend last session, thanks to surpluses and growing revenues.
Sen. Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, co-chairman of the Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said Monday he was "perplexed" by Huntsman's inclusion of the funding on his agenda for the special session.
"This is a different beast than what I was anticipating," he said.
Legislation sponsored by Killpack established a legislative task force that will study Utah's Medicaid program. Because of that, the senator said, "I'm not interested in doing any changes at this point outside of what we've done in the general session until the next session."
Advocates for Utah's poor and disabled communities were a constant presence on Capitol Hill during the 45-day regular session pushing for dental funding. They expressed disappointment Monday that Huntsman limited his call to $2 million for emergency services only.
"First of all, we are delighted that there's something there for dental," said Judi Hilman, director of the Utah Health Policy Project. "But then when you look at $15 million for a parking structure ... I don't care what it's for, there's just no way that that's going to matter more than comprehensive dental benefits."
Hilman was referring to the governor's request that lawmakers meeting in special session also authorize up to $15 million for the construction of a parking structure at the State Capitol Complex. Complete restoration of dental benefits would have cost $3.9 million, an amount Senate Democrats requested in a Wednesday letter to the governor.
Rep. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake, also seemed frustrated Monday that Huntsman didn't ask for full restoration of dental benefits. She did, however, express optimism that lawmakers would change their previous position and at least fund a portion of the services.
"I'm hoping that those who have been resistant will soften their hearts and understand that not only is it the right thing to do but it will prevent major medical costs down the road for all taxpayers," Jones said.
Barbara Toomer with the Disabled Rights Action Committee promised that lawmakers will again see members of her organization at this week's special session, which began Monday, advocating for this funding.
"We told them we weren't going to go away and we aren't," she said. "It's just appalling to think that this compassionate Legislature, in a time of so much money, is willing to throw us all out in the cold."
Another item on the agenda, or call, for the special session that may well spark controversy deals with changes to a new law reducing the sales tax on food. Lawmakers agreed last session to cut 2 percentage points from the state's share of the hated tax.
Some, though, are having second thoughts. GOP senators voted last week to seek a six-month delay in the implementation of the new law, set to take effect Jan. 1, 2007, because of concerns over the accuracy of the $70 million price tag.
Valentine said there are also worries over the effect of the new law on retailers, who have already sought additional financial help handling the adjustment in rates. "One of the solutions might be a six-month delay," the Senate president said.
A legislative interim committee recommended fixes to the new law's definition of prepared foods, so someone buying, for example, a hot breakfast sandwich at a fast-food outlet doesn't pay more tax that someone buying the same item at a grocery or convenience store.
Restoring $291 million in Utah Department of Transportation funds that were vetoed by the governor because of a technical problem in the state budget. Action is needed so the agency can move forward on planned road projects this summer, including the construction of passing lanes on U.S. Highway 6, said spokesman Nile Easton.