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.
Already, he said, "Utah is very well-regarded in Washington as a place to travel to, to raise a family and in which to do business" and more exposure will only improve that image.
As chief of staff to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Harding said he organized visits by some of the congressman's top donors, many of whom had never traveled to the Beehive State.
"Once they got here, they were just completely overwhelmed, in awe really, by the beauty of the state, the cleanliness of the cities, by the friendliness of the people," he said. "In every instance, they would say, 'We are coming back.'"
Harding himself did not plan to return to Utah anytime soon.
Born and raised in southern Utah, the Beaver High School and Southern Utah University graduate said he planned to spend at least two decades in Washington, raising his family and building his career there.
"I love Washington," Harding said. "People always asked, 'When are you coming back to Utah?' My response was always, 'We'll come back to Utah when given the right opportunity. We'll know what that is when we see it.'"
Taking over as chief of staff from Derek Miller, who stepped down to become president and CEO of the World Trade Center Utah, was that opportunity.
Miller, who already knew Harding, said the governor's office "specifically recruited him for the chief position based on his D.C. experience and Utah ties and knowledge."
The governor said Harding was clearly "the perfect man for the job" because of that combination.
“The lives of Utahns are impacted by policy crafted at both the state and federal levels. Justin’s 14 years experience working on issues that impact our state while in the nation’s capital will prove invaluable as we work with our federal delegation and the National Governors Association on a wide range of issues," Herbert said.
Harding said the governor's office "was well cared for" under Miller, one of a half-dozen top officials to leave Herbert's office since last fall.
"There's always churn. Change is good," Harding said. "I wouldn't read anything into those changes other than they're a natural process in any organization as people pursue new opportunities."
The governor's senior staff is stable, with no changes planned, he said.
"I'm pretty mellow. No drama," Harding said. "My first mantra is do no harm. And my second is no drama."
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