The stage for the 2014 session was set on the Legislature’s opening day, when House Speaker Becky Lockhart’s audacious criticism of Gov. Gary Herbert drew cheers and gasps, and her words echoed throughout the most substantive and high-profile policy debates.
But as the dust settles after 45 days of tense sparring, it is Herbert who can claim victories on many of his goals, leaving Lockhart to mark her 16th and final session in the Legislature with a string of disappointments.
Lockhart opened the session calling Herbert an “inaction figure” and challenging him to take a stand against the federal government and return the federal Medicaid dollars.
“I have no regrets,” Lockhart said as the session drew to a close Thursday.
Most notably, the speaker was forced to abandon her grand vision to spend up to $300 million to revolutionize Utah schools by putting a digital-learning device in the hands of every student, after Herbert threatened to veto the proposal and senators resisted funding it.
“I’ve been here 16 years. I know how to take a punch,” Lockhart said Thursday. “You know real fighters by how they react after they get hit.”
Letting her plan go, she said, was in the best interest of the state once it became clear there was a pittance for her program — the change in the couch cushions, as she characterized the several million dollars offered — and demands for big concessions in budget talks.
“It will happen. It has to happen,” she said. “The Legislature and the governor weren’t ready for it, which is unfortunate, but we’ll continue to work on it through the year.”
Lockhart and Republican House leaders also staked out a position on Medicaid, rejecting hundreds of millions in federal money and instead relying more on state funds to provide some health-care coverage to the poorest Utahns. Herbert countered with his own proposal that would accept nearly a quarter-billion dollars of federal money to subsidize health-insurance premiums for low-income Utahns.
Neither plan won support from the Legislature, but in the vacuum, Herbert will be able to negotiate with the Obama administration for approval of his own vision.
‘Huge’ defeat • Adam Brown, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said the defeats Lockhart suffered were significant and potentially damaging to her should she decide to challenge Herbert — a much speculated on 2016 contest she has declined to rule out.
“That’s pretty huge, when the speaker of the House sets up one major priority and can’t get it done,” said Brown.
It almost seemed, Brown said, that branding Herbert an “inaction figure,” animated the governor, prompting him to push back against her education plan and to take action on Medicaid expansion.
“You have two major issues where she was trying to show she could put forward her own proposals and get it enacted and neither one could get through the Legislature, in part because of [Herbert’s] action,” Brown said.
In the waning hours Thursday, Herbert wasn’t willing to declare himself the victor.
“I look at the success of the session by what we do after 45 days. As I look at the budget, how we’ve prioritized, how we’ve respected the taxpayer dollars … the winner here is the people of Utah,” Herbert said. “All the personal intrigue, the palace intrigue out there, is something I don’t really watch or care about.”
Lockhart was credited with putting her political capital on the line during the summer, as the House launched an investigation into alleged corruption by then-Attorney General John Swallow.
On Wednesday, the committee she appointed concluded its work with a report that concluded that Swallow — who was driven from office in November — had essentially hung a “For Sale” sign on the door of the attorney general’s office, doing favors for friends and wealthy supporters.
“I’m proud to say we responded with an unwavering commitment to find the truth,” she said. “It was a high cost but we cannot put a price on public trust. One does not cut corners when the very integrity of our justice system is at stake.”
A series of reform bills — from stricter reporting for campaign contributions and conflicts of interest, to strengthening the Legislature’s hand to conduct future investigations, and criminalizing obstruction of legislative probes — passed easily through the House and a series of other reforms have been recommended for the future.
Gay-rights detente • One high-profile issue coming into the session — how the state would address gay rights and same-sex marriage — got shelved early by Republican leaders who refused to wade into the issue while the state was appealing a federal judge’s ruling striking down Utah’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
In hindsight, said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser — after national backlash against Arizona’s legislation allowing businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian citizens based on religious beliefs — he was “more and more convinced that was the right decision for this session.”
U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby’s Dec. 20 ruling striking down Utah’s marriage ban, Niederhauser said, “created an emotional time to discuss those issues. I think we can come back in a less emotional time next year and address them better.”
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, whose bill to prohibit housing and employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns got sidelined, said there still was progress on the issue.
“We took some significant steps forward and that’s not always measured in passing the committee or passing on the floor,” Urquhart said.
Thirteen protesters demanding SB100 get a hearing were arrested while blocking access to a hearing. But in the wake of the protests, Urquhart and Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, organized an emotional, informal hearing where gay and transgender Utahns could share their stories.
“I really think we touched some hearts and minds and people are, if not already swinging over to oppose discrimination, they’re thinking really hard about it,” said Urquhart, who predicts it is just a matter of time before the bill passes. “The tide of society is changing.”
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who had a trio of bills shelved— including one similar to the Arizona law that created so much turmoil — said he accepted the detente, but believes the Legislature will have to discuss the balance of protections for religious people and LGBT individuals.
“I don’t think that will be a dead issue,” said Reid, who is leaving after this term.
There will continue to be conflict between religious freedom, he said, and rights the LGBT community is trying to assert. Reid said it is also possible that, whoever replaces him, may not be as outspoken on the issue.
“It’s hard to speak up on an issue like this because people can see what the trend is and most politicians don’t want to get caught up in being in opposition to the momentum and the trend,” Reid said.