Gov. Gary Herbert split on voter initiatives — opposes Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana, backs two aimed at election laws

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Governor Gary R. Herbert gives one of his monthly news conferences to reporters at the Eccles Broadcast Center's KUED Studios on the University of Utah campus on Thursday, February 21, 2013.

Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday came out strongly against the initiative to expand Medicaid coverage to tens of thousands more low-income Utahns and reiterated his opposition to another to legalize medical marijuana.

He supported the other two that are close to getting on the Nov. 6 ballot: one to create an independent commission to draw political boundaries (although his praise was tepid), and the Count My Vote initiative to cement into law allowing candidates to qualify for a primary election through the caucus-convention system and/or by collecting signatures.

At his monthly news conference on KUED-TV, Herbert also endorsed Senate candidate Mitt Romney and U.S. Rep. John Curtis, both of whom face primary-election opponents as a result of the GOP state convention last weekend, where conservative delegates seemed to want to punish candidates for collecting signatures.

He urged fellow Republicans to stop fighting over the election law that allows dual paths to the ballot.

“I appreciate the fact we have an initiative-petition process,” Herbert said, adding it is important “that people have the ability to weigh in” when they feel the Legislature is ignoring the public. The four initiatives are on issues that have been popular in polls, but on which the Legislature took little or no action.

While the governor supports only two of them, he was upset at reports that some opposition groups are trying to defeat the efforts by trying to persuade people who signed petitions to withdraw their names to prevent qualification for the ballot.

“Let’s have the vote. Let’s have the debate,” he said. “I think it’s good to have the people’s voice heard.”

Medical marijuana

Herbert repeated his earlier opposition to the medical marijuana initiative, although he said, “I support the medicinal use of marijuana based on science and based on the ability of a doctor to prescribe it … and control the quality and quantity.”

He said the initiative would not do that and “would ignore a federal law that says it’s illegal.” He added, “If the law is wrong, let’s change the law.”

Herbert called for more and better research to answer questions about the benefits of marijuana, and how to appropriately administer it.

The initiative, he said, “has lack of oversight and some loopholes that cause concern.”

FILE - In this May 5, 2015, file photo, a marijuana plant grows at a Minnesota Medical Solutions greenhouse in Otsego, Minn. Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of two licensed medical marijuana manufacturers, lost millions of dollars in their first full year of operations, according to financial documents obtained by The Associated Press.(Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP, File)

For example, he said, it allows people who do not live within 100 miles of a dispensary to grow their own marijuana. “As soon as you start growing your own, you lose control.”

He also complains that not just family doctors can sign cards to allow marijuana use, but it may also be recommended by physician assistants, nurse practitioners, optometrists, podiatrists and other health care professionals.

Herbert added that 18- to 25-year-olds are the greatest users of medical marijuana in states that allow it. “I would submit to us all they are probably not the ones that have chronic health problems. So you have to wonder what’s going on there,” and how much recreational use is occurring.

He said he may “proactively fight” the initiative by convening experts in the field to discuss and talk about what is known, and not known, about medical use of marijuana.

The Utah Patients Coalition, which is pushing the initiative, says people battling cancer, seizures and other life-threatening conditions now must break the law to relieve their pain and suffering. The initiative would bring them relief, they say, and they disagree with arguments that it would increase recreational use.

Medicaid expansion

The governor argued that the Medicaid expansion initiative is unnecessary and too expensive. He said he backs the bill passed by the Legislature that — if the Trump administration grants waivers — would cover people whose income is at or below the poverty line, adding an estimated 72,000 people.

The initiative would cover those who earn up to 138 percent of poverty, as allowed by the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.” It would add an estimated 150,000 people.

“I’m concerned about the rising costs … that are not addressed in the bill” that could put the state on the hook for them without controlling them, he said.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Hundreds of people rally at the Utah State Capitol Rotunda on Thursday, February 20 to support Medicaid expansion in Utah. If the state doesn't expand Medicaid by accepting federal funding, 58,000 low-income Utahns will fall into a "coverage gap" - receiving neither Medicaid coverage nor a tax subsidy to help purchase their own insurance.

“Medicaid is the budget buster of all the budget busters,” the governor said. “It should be a concern if you care about balancing the budget and being fiscally conservative.”

Utah Decides Healthcare, which is pushing that initiative, says it is an affordable way to provide health care to low-income Utahns who now lack it. The group says it would raise the sales tax on nonfood items from 4.7 percent to 4.85 percent — about 3 cents for every $20. It says that would “bring back more than $800 million in tax money from Washington, D.C.”

The group issued a statement Thursday saying, “While we respect the governor, more than 60 percent of residents in our state favor expanding Medicaid to more than 150,000 of our friends, neighbors and families who don’t have health care right now.”

Better Boundaries

Herbert said the Better Boundaries initiative calling for an independent commission to draw political boundaries “intellectually has good sense to it.” But he warns that removing politics and gerrymandering from the process “is not as easy as you think.”

He said that in redrawing Utah’s congressional districts, the state’s Republicans so vastly outnumber its Democrats that it would be difficult to draw lines in a way to make one district that leans Democratic “without some gerrymandering, and that is supposedly what we are trying to avoid.”

Democrats disagree. During the past redistricting, they offered several proposals they said were fair and would create a Democratic district in Salt Lake County. But the Republican Legislature decided to carve that county up between three districts.

“There is definitely a way to draw boundaries that keeps communities intact, and also ensures political representation is more fair,” Alex Cragun, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, said Thursday.

Herbert added about the initiative, “It’s not going to be, I think, exactly the silver bullet that everybody thinks it’s going to be. But I have no opposition to how we do redistricting if we follow the constitution.”

Count My Vote

Hebert notes that the Count My Vote initiative essentially backs “what is already law,” allowing a dual path to the ballot.

“This initiative would actually make current statutes better” by reducing a now-high number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot through that route, he said.

The 2014 law that created the dual paths, called SB54, was a compromise to save the caucus-convention system when it appeared a ballot initiative was about to replace it with a direct primary.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Utah Rep. Fred Cox tries to get recognized in order to ask a question during the Count My Vote public hearing at the Whitmore Library in Cottonwood Heights, Friday, Oct. 27, 2017. The Count My Vote ballot initiative seeks to select party nominees through a direct primary, in addition to the traditional caucus-convention system.

But it sparked a civil war in the GOP. Conservatives — who tend to dominate the caucus-convention system — hate the law because it reduces their power and have pressed lawsuits challenging the law. Moderates favor the law as one that expands choices for candidates and voters.

“I said before maybe I should have vetoed the bill. I didn’t realize the division it would create,” the governor said. Still, he added, SB54 “has worked fairly well,” and he supports the initiative.

Endorsing Romney, Curtis

While it is unusual for an official to endorse any candidates before primaries, Herbert threw his support to Romney and Curtis.

Herbert said it is no secret that he encouraged Romney to run, so it should not be surprising that he is endorsing him.

“He would not be a typical freshman senator,” Herbert said. “He understands national issues. He has run for president…. He has opportunity to be in leadership in much more rapid fashion, and I think that’s good for the country, and I think that’s good for Utah.”

Herbert also gave some praise to Romney’s GOP opponent, state Rep. Mike Kennedy of Alpine. “He’s a bright guy and he’s certainly a principled legislator who brings his own talent and expertise to the table.”

Herbert said he also had encouraged Curtis to run again and had endorsed him last year. “He’s a rational, common-sense Republican, conservative, right of center,” Herbert said. “Having him stay there — he’s got some momentum — is probably the right thing to do.”

Convention concerns

Herbert again called on Republicans to stop the infighting — which was apparent at Saturday’s state convention. Battles between conservatives and moderates slowed the proceedings to a crawl, making for a marathon event of more than 11 hours with plenty of boos and catcalls.

“It’s disappointing,” Herbert said, noting he stayed for four hours — but his wife, an elected delegate, stuck it out through the entire ordeal.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Frustrations and weariness show on the faces of delegates as the convention drags on due to rigorous debate on bylaws, amendment proposals and rules at the Utah Republican Nominating Convention Saturday, April 21, 2018 at the Maverik Center.

Herbert said Republicans should strive to have “a big tent” as Ronald Reagan said.