We'll look at any and every opportunity we have to get to the right point. Clearly, we want to negotiate with our colleagues in the House and see if we can't have reason and common sense prevail. —Gov. Gary Herbert
SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert stepped up the pressure Thursday on House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, to allow a hearing on his Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion but didn't get the answer he wanted.
Hughes said there's still "no traction" in the House for the governor's plan to use nearly $1 billion in federal funds available under the Affordable Care Act to provide health care coverage to low-income Utahns.
The governor said he would continue fighting for the proposal: "We'll look at any and every opportunity we have to get to the right point. Clearly, we want to negotiate with our colleagues in the House and see if we can't have reason and common sense prevail."
Both Republican leaders had pointed words about the apparent impasse, which follows Senate approval for Healthy Utah and comes with just two weeks left in the legislative session. It also included back-and-forth on the Utah State Prison relocation, as Herbert raised the possibility the prison won't be moved from Draper, one of the speaker's top priorities.
Over the past year, Herbert has been negotiating to win approval for the plan from the Obama administration. The governor, who has already scaled back Healthy Utah, announced details Thursday of a new concession from Washington — a cap on enrollment after two years.
The governor said his plan to replace traditional Medicaid with private health insurance to cover some 126,000 Utahns, including about 60,000 in the so-called coverage gap, has support from a long list of business leaders, nonprofit organizations and others.
Concerns lawmakers have raised have been addressed, Herbert said, but not discussed by the House GOP caucus behind closed doors. He also has agreed to end the program after two years and pay for it without tax increases.
The governor, asked repeatedly about taking executive action on Healthy Utah during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED, said all options remain on the table.
His spokesman, Marty Carpenter, said later the governor saw executive action as calling a special session of the Legislature, not attempting to enact Healthy Utah through signing an executive order.
Meanwhile, the speaker posted on his Facebook page that the only reason someone would want Healthy Utah heard "is to try and bully members into voting against their conscience."
Hughes later said the bullying he was talking about was mailers targeting lawmakers opposed to Healthy Utah sent to their constituents by the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah.
The alliance's executive director, Maryann Martindale, said Hughes is incorrect in believing a recent closed-door Republican caucus vote on Healthy Utah is sufficient in the House.
"Constituents deserve to hear their legislators publicly debate this important bill. Instead, Hughes is shutting the door on the people," she said, calling his decision not to hear Healthy Utah "disingenuous at best and immoral at worst."
Hughes said Healthy Utah "advocates say the worst things about this House. We've been told our process has been bad. We've been told that our intentions have been bad or have been vindictive. Nothing further could be from the truth."
The speaker dismissed rumors that he had threatened House members with losing their committee chairmanships over the issue.
"That would be unfortunate if that was ever said," he said.
Morgan Lyon Cotti, who studies the state Legislature as a member of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Hughes' steps to block the bill through his position as speaker has led to a dramatic standoff between Hughes and the governor.
"I think we also see Herbert as trying to be a consensus-builder, but he's had challenges because he has had powerful speakers who have been willing to take strong stances, like Speaker Hughes is doing," Lyon Cotti said. "This isn't like it's just some random issue. This is an issue people know about. Everyone knows knows what Obamacare means. This is a very polarizing issue. It will be interesting to see where the chips lay and how it affects all the parties politically."
Despite the heavy Republican majority in the Utah Legislature, the power to keep a bill from being heard on the floor, held by both the House speaker and Senate president, plays a powerful role in local political battles, she said.
"One of the interesting things in Utah is how much power the speaker does have, that the speaker can block this," Lyon Cotti said. "This has probably happened with smaller bills that he doesn't want to see, I think the reason that we're noticing it is because this is such a major issue. The fact that he is pulling out this power makes it all the more noticeable and all the more dramatic."
Senate leaders tried to sound optimistic about Healthy Utah's chances. SB164, sponsored by Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, passed the Senate on Wednesday.
"Healthy Utah is far from dead," Shiozawa told reporters. "We still have time in the session. We have time to negotiate. This is a good bill."
The senator noted lawmakers have made time for many other issues, including naming the golden retriever the state domestic animal.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said Democrats are "amazed" at Hughes' lack of perspective on Healthy Utah and accused the GOP leaders of "cowering behind the starting line."
The Senate shot down an alternative to Healthy Utah, Sen. Allen Christensen's "Utah Cares" plan Thursday, saying that passing SB153 would weaken the Senate's position with the House on the issue.
The North Ogden Republican wanted to keep his bill on the table should the House and the governor remain at odds.
"I wonder why we would empower the House over our body," said Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe. "I question that logic."
Shiozawa said there's no reason to keep Christensen's bill alive. The Senate, he said, should "go with one and only one plan."
"I think we need to send a clear and unequivocal voice from the Senate," he said. "Healthy Utah is negotiating from a position of strength."
Christensen said doing nothing this session is lawmakers' only option without his bill.
"I'm 100 percent convinced the speaker is going to hold his ground despite what the governor has threatened," he said.
Christensen pitched his plan as a compromise between full Medicaid expansion and doing nothing. It would have covered Utahns up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level and who are uninsured, medically frail or vulnerable to becoming disabled.
The insertion of the effort to relocate the aging prison into the debate over Healthy Utah came as House leaders have called for the Legislature's seven-member Prison Relocation Commission to have the final say on where it should be moved.
Herbert said he has a role in deciding where the prison goes and could veto any legislation turning it over to the legislative commission. He also said the prison should be moved only if a suitable location can be found.
The possibility of using some of the 700 acres the prison sits on at Point of the Mountain to build a new prison is "a legitimate intellectual position to take," the governor said.
The commission, which meets Friday, was charged with bringing a recommendation to lawmakers this session but has run into significant community opposition on sites identified in Eagle Mountain, Salt Lake City and Tooele County.
New sites in Eagle Mountain and Tooele are expected to be added to the shortlist Friday, but coming up with a single site will take until May or June, long after the legislative session ends.
That means unless the law is changed, naming the site of the $500 million to $600 million project could have to wait until the 2016 Legislature if the governor isn't willing to call lawmakers into special session.
Hughes and other proponents of moving the prison have said the prime real estate along a high-tech corridor straddling Salt Lake and Utah counties needs to be freed up for development.
The speaker said House Republicans didn't see a connection between the prison relocation and Healthy Utah, "but I can see how people would like to play hardball or there might be some interest in trying to bleed the issues together."
Contributing: McKenzie Romero
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