The opening of the Utah Legislature is usually a polite, sedate affair. But House Speaker Becky Lockhart added some fireworks Monday by lobbing some verbal grenades at Gov. Gary Herbert — whom many expect she will challenge in 2016.
“We need energy in the executive, not an inaction figure in the governor’s office,” she said in her opening speech, to some surprised whoops and applause.
“That is why I cannot support, and do not understand, why anyone would propose to saddle Utah any further with Obamacare, the most costly and catastrophic federal mandate of all,” she said attacking the governor for last week taking off the table the option of doing nothing about the Medicaid expansion to the poor available under that new law.
She said it offers only a partial, temporary federal subsidy that she called “a trap, an out-in-the-open bait and switch.”
So, she said, “Here’s a suggestion. The next time the White House offers more unfunded mandates … and the governor’s office tries to figure out how to pay for it, we as a House and we as a state should politely decline, drop a copy of the Constitution inside a statement ‘return to sender,’” she said to cheers.
She said Obamacare “won’t help us bring compassionate service to those most in need. And it surely won’t solve any of our serious health care challenges,” she said. “Every time a state surrenders or a governor gives in, the state grows weaker and poorer and less free.”
Lawmakers will soon grapple with whether to expand Medicaid coverage to an estimated 123,000 low-income Utahns under the Affordable Care Act. Gov. Gary Herbert said last week that “doing nothing is off the table,” but he has not provided details of an expansion plan he would support.
When Herbert’s office was asked for a reply to Lockhart’s comments, it released the following short statement from the governor: “I want to welcome the Legislature back into general session and look forward to working with them. I hope we can all set aside politics and political ambition and focus on the work of the people of Utah.”
Top issues • Lockhart’s verbal darts came as the 2014 session convened Monday beneath a cloud of smog and under national scrutiny after becoming Ground Zero in the same-sex marriage debate.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, urged his colleagues to hold onto traditional values and “clean out the closet” by striking old, unenforceable or outdated laws from the state code.
Prayers to open the session are rarely given much notice. But the Senate’s opening prayer was given by LDS apostle D. Todd Christofferson — who was featured in an LDS Church statement and video last week opposing any change to Utah’s liquor laws.
He argued in that video that the current standards are not as bizarre as some suggest and help save lives.
Still, debate is expected in the session about whether Utah’s liquor laws need additional changes to support the state’s $7.4 billion tourism industry, and whether Utah taxpayers should subsidize the development of a major convention center and hotel in downtown Salt Lake City.
A major topic this year is expected to be how to reduce Utah air pollution that is some days the worst in the nation. Thousands rallied at the Capitol over the weekend demanding the Legislature take action. And a poll conducted for The Salt Lake Tribune found that nearly 60 percent of Utahns are more concerned about Utah’s air quality and 67 percent would favor tougher rules for polluting industries.
Related to that, a debate over whether to raise the gas tax to improve transportation is expected, but Lockhart took a firm stance against the gas tax in her opening remarks Monday.
“A gas tax increase is neither fresh nor new nor right. I am not persuaded that a long-term increase in the gas tax is the long-term answer to our long-term needs,” she said.
She urged other steps to improve transportation and air quality, including working with businesses to allow “employees to work from home and telecommute, support transit passes, encourage flex schedule, encourage travel in off-peak hours to reduce emissions during the day.”
Gay marriage • Meanwhile, Utah’s conservative lawmakers are anxious to do something in the wake of a federal court ruling striking down the state constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage. More than 1,300 couples obtained marriage licenses before the Supreme Court issued a stay pending an appeal of the ruling.
Several bills have been proposed to strengthen the state’s prohibition on gay marriage, to prevent churches and individuals from being compelled to recognize same-sex unions, and to raise money for the court fight.
The furor has overshadowed a bill that would outlaw housing and employment discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns. The Tribune poll found 60 percent of Utahns support the measure and the governor said he supported the concept of such legislation.
Lawmakers will also carve up about $13.3 billion in taxpayer dollars, with Herbert and legislative leaders again saying that education will be a top priority.
Utah’s per-pupil spending remains the lowest in the nation — by far — and dipped during the recent recession. Herbert has proposed boosting that by about $100 per pupil, with $261 million in new spending for public and higher education.
Lockhart, in her speech, also encouraged not only more investment in education, but more use of new technology in classrooms. “Let’s look differently at schools and urge them to think big,” she said. “We need nothing less than education renaissance in Utah.”
Utah’s Legislature • The Legislature is dominated by Republicans who control both houses by better than four-fifths majorities. Republicans rule the House by a 61-14 margin, and control the Senate 24-5.
Of the 104 legislators, only 17 are women — but they hold some of the highest leadership positions, including the top two in the House with Lockhart as speaker and Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, as the Democratic leader.
Some other women in leadership positions include Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City; Senate Minority Assistant Whip Pat Jones, D-Holladay; Senate Minority Caucus Manager Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City; and House Minority Assistant Whip Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City.
The Legislature includes one member who is openly gay, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who is also chairman of the Utah Democratic Party. He was recently married during the 17 days when same-sex marriages were allowed in Utah.
The longest-serving lawmaker is Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who has been in the Legislature since 1981 and in the Senate since 1985. The newest lawmaker is Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, who replaced Rep. Derek Brown earlier this month.
Utah has a citizen Legislature, where lawmakers take time off from their regular jobs to serve. Among them are 18 attorneys, 16 who say they are business owners or operators, six are doctors or dentists and five are in real estate. Some other occupations include beekeeper, pharmacist, rancher, Highway Patrol officer, veterinarian, banker and teacher.