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Herbert v. Lockhart in session’s final stretch?
Legislature » Tension between guv, speaker, some say, has gotten unusually personal.

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"Gary and I are friends. We’ve been friends for a very long time," Lockhart said. "I have great respect for the governor and I believe it’s mutual."

In a response her staff jokes is given so often it should be the ring tone on her cellphone, Lockhart says this session she is the House speaker and representative from District 64. The decision on whether to run for governor "is for another day."

At a glance

The big four: Issues remaining in the 2014 session

1. The budget: Lawmakers got a bit of good news, learning late last week that tax collections are up, meaning they’ll have $47 million more to spend on various budget needs. The bad news is budget makers say it still won’t cover all the demands. Top priorities include increasing education funding, giving a pay bump for state workers and keeping pace with the growth in the state prison system. All told, lawmakers will have about $400 million to add to a budget that will total about $13.5 billion.

2. Medicaid expansion: There are three competing plans for how to cover Utah’s poorest uninsured residents. The House Republican leadership’s plan eschews federal money, using $35 million in state money to pay health costs. Senators appear to be lining up behind a plan that would use federal funds to subsidize private health insurance plans for individuals making less than $11,670 a year. Gov. Gary Herbert has proposed seeking a federal block grant and using $258 million to subsidize coverage for people making up to $15,500.

3. Education technology: Early in the session House Speaker Becky Lockhart announced a major push to get a digital learning device in the hands of every one of Utah’s more than 610,000 students. Her proposal has been scaled down to $200 million, but Herbert and Senate leaders still think that might be too much and say it may need to be slimmed down more.

4. Count My Vote: A deal struck to change Utah’s nominating system and avert the Count My Vote ballot initiative broke down late Friday but was salvaged Saturday. If the bill passes, it would let candidates for office qualify for the primary ballot by gathering enough signatures, rather than having to go through the party’s caucus and convention system. If the deal falls apart again, Count My Vote has gathered more than 100,000 of the 102,000 signatures needed to be on the November ballot with a plan to nominate candidates through direct primaries.

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If she wants to run, Lockhart — who has said she won’t seek re-election this year — has been doing what candidates need to do. She has been elevating her profile, participating with representatives in numerous town-hall meetings around the state.

And she has been aggressively raising money, right up to the start of the legislative session — when lawmakers are prohibited from hosting fundraisers.

Lockhart had about $100,000 in the bank at the end of 2013 between three accounts she wholly or jointly controls. She raised nearly $39,000 more in the first few weeks of this year.

Herbert has not said whether he will seek re-election in 2016, but is in a strong position if he opts to run. He finished 2013 with more than $600,000 in the bank, and recently was named by The Washington Post as the most popular governor in the country.

For now, though, the clash in the Capitol is more pressing than any potential clash on the 2016 ballot.

Former House Speaker Greg Curtis, now a lobbyist, said there is always tension between the speaker and the governor and that there have been some policy disagreements between Lockhart and Herbert over the years.

Public vs. private » Curtis said he had some disagreements with then-Gov. Jon Huntsman, but they never spilled out onto the front page of the paper.

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"He was immensely popular, as is Governor Herbert, and … publicly slapping at Governor Huntsman was a no-win game for me. But privately, we had some disagreements."

One of the biggest, Curtis said, was Huntsman’s desire to impose an individual health insurance mandate. Curtis fought the governor over that and it never passed, but it was never a public battle, either.

But the events that have unfolded this year seem different, Curtis said. "It seems a little more personal."

Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said the potential that Lockhart might run against Herbert adds an additional layer of tension over the normal conflicts arising between the branches of government.

"When you compound [the normal tension] with this not-very-disguised effort to begin campaigning and show why the governor is not doing a good job and why perhaps someone else could do better, that complicates things," said Burbank.

Should the jockeying for political advantage become too intense, Burbank said, it could make it harder to cut the policy deals necessary in the closing days of the legislative session.

"I think there’s the real potential for that to have an impact," said Burbank. Either the governor or speaker could deem it in their political interest to hold firm to a policy position rather than making a deal, and that could impede the Legislature from doing the work of the people.

But Curtis, the former speaker, said he thinks Lockhart and Herbert can set aside ego and political posturing and do their jobs.

"I think they just roll with it," said Curtis. "If you’re here in the political arena as long as Speaker Lockhart, President Niederhauser, Governor Herbert, you have to learn to set aside your personal frustration and make a deal … the public expects a resolution."


Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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