Four of the five Patrick Henry Caucus members in the Legislature, who kept sessions lively with their so-called message bills while they wooed their right-wing base with an eye to higher office, are gone now. That has made for a more subdued general this year.
But some behind the scenes maneuvering emanating from the office of House Speaker Becky Lockhart has created a buzz in Capitol corridors that Lockhart herself may be aiming for the governor’s seat.
The relationship between the speaker and Gov. Gary Herbert has been strained at best, and the way certain bills are being handled has led to speculation that a legislative attempt at a coup is afoot. Herbert just won re-election and has given no indication whether he will seek another term in 2016.
But a bill sponsored by Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, a strong Lockhart ally in the House, is seen as a ploy to weaken the governor’s authority over certain fraud and abuse investigations and to put that control in the hands of another Lockhart ally, newly elected State Auditor John Dougall.
House Bill 106 would transfer the governor-appointed Medicaid inspector general to the auditor’s office, giving Dougall full authority to hire and fire the inspector. It also would remove a provision that the Legislature reconfirm the individual every two years.
The inspector general has identified a significant amount of waste in Medicaid payments so far and is fulfilling the goal set by the Legislature when the position was created — to save money.
But whenever waste is discovered and eliminated, it’s a feather in the hat of the governor’s administration. The Wilcox bill would give the credit to the auditor, and Dougall would have greater authority to investigate the medical programs under Herbert’s administration, possibly to embarrass the governor.
One legislative source says there is merit to the idea since the inspector currently is charged with finding fault within the administration of the governor who is his boss. An independent inspector might be more aggressive.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case with the current inspector, Lee Wycoff, who actually has ruffled feathers in the medical provider community that claims he has been too aggressive.
That same legislative source said that while there is merit to the idea, it is tempered by suspicion among many House members that it is a way for Dougall’s ally, Speaker Lockhart, to score political points against the governor if he chooses to run for re-election when his term is up.
Lockhart and Dougall are unquestionably political allies. Dougall carried the water for the speaker by sponsoring the controversial HB477, the bill that would have gutted the Government Records Access and Management Act. The bill was signed into law but was repealed in the midst of public outrage.
Dougall also received more than $7,000 from PACs controlled by Lockhart in the primary last year that helped him knock off incumbent Republican auditor Auston Johnson. And, when Dougall was sworn in as auditor, one of his first acts was to fire longtime legislative affairs assistant Betsy Ross and replace her with Emily Lockhart, the speaker’s daughter.
Another possible clue that the speaker is angling to embarrass Herbert is the resistance she has put up against a resolution endorsing the goal of having 66 percent of Utah’s high school graduates hold a college degree or post-high school certificate by 2020.
Herbert has made the idea the cornerstone of his education initiative and the resolution passed the Senate without a dissenting vote. But it has been held up in the House Rules Committee for over a week and Dougall argued against it at a recent Republican Central Committee meeting.