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Autism funding becomes stumbling block in budget

Published March 5, 2012 5:34 pm

Health • Pilot program a priority for House, but the Senate doesn't seem too willing to play ball.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

House and Senate leaders were deadlocked Monday over whether to create a program insuring children with autism, how much to spend on roads and how much money to save.

Republican leaders huddled in closed-door meetings for long stretches, trying to hammer out the remaining, thorny issues.

House leadership has been clear that the autism pilot program is among the group's top priorities. The program seeks to cover about 700 young children through the state's insurance program, Medicaid and a voluntary contribution from insurance companies.

But Senate Republicans have little interest in the project, said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville.

"It doesn't look hopeful at this point," he said. "Right now I'd say the Republican caucus is leaning against it. … There were three Republicans for it the other day. I know of four now."

House Assistant Majority Whip Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, who has been pressing for coverage for children with autism, pointedly disagreed with Waddoups' appraisal.

"He doesn't count well. There's a lot more than that," she said. "He may be surprised."

Waddoups said he is among those opposing the bill. Even though it is only a two-year pilot program, he said, it could set a precedent for such coverage.

"I think it creates an expectation the state won't be able to fund after about three years," Waddoups said. "I think the demand there would be so strong."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the House feels strongly that the autism program needs to pass. The funding for the program has been allocated, but the bill to create the pilot project is awaiting action in the Senate.

"We feel it's a good answer to begin to address some of those significant issues for so many families in Utah without having a mandate," said Lockhart. "We hope the Senate will agree with us on that and move that bill forward."

The Senate is also balking at a roads package that the House has approved, believing it would make it impossible to pay down the state's existing debt burden. Senators are also pushing to have more money socked away as Rainy Day Funds, essentially a state savings account, which has been diminished from $420 million to $230 million during the recession.