Utah Gov. Gary Herbert repeatedly declined on Thursday to state whether he would sign or veto various bills` expected to be debated during the upcoming legislation session — which begins Monday — but offered implicit praise and critiques on topics ranging from Medicaid expansion to hate-crimes legislation.
Speaking to Utah reporters as part of his monthly televised news conference at KUED, Herbert said “the people have spoken” on Proposition 3, which raised the state’s sales tax and expands Medicaid coverage to individuals earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — an estimated 150,000 Utahns.
North Ogden Republican Sen. Allen Christensen is proposing legislation that would scale back Medicaid coverage approved in the initiative. The bill is not yet public, but Christensen has said it would seek federal waivers to cap enrollment and impose work requirements on beneficiaries — effectively repealing Proposition 3 — in order to minimize costs to the state.
Herbert said there is a question of how to pay for expanded coverage, particularly over the long term, but that there is logic in allowing Prop 3 to take effect in order to better understand its impact on Utah’s budget.
“I do expect it to be implemented at the will of the people,” Herbert said. “Some way you’ve got to pay that cost of expanding Medicaid. That debate needs to happen and I expect we’re going to need to make some modifications for that.”
Despite the concerns around paying for Medicaid, Herbert has proposed a $200 million tax cut as part of a broader reform of the state’s sales tax. He said those changes are needed for “future sustainability,” with a lower sales tax rate applied to a broader pool of financial transactions.
“It’s not just a matter of money now and money tomorrow,” Herbert said. “It’s a matter of having a healthy, growing economy that’s viable for the next generation.”
Herbert reiterated that he should have initially vetoed SB54, which created dual paths for candidates seeking a party nomination to secure a place on a primary ballot. But despite ongoing division around the law among party insiders, the ability for candidates to gather signatures has been widely popular among the state’s electorate.
"The public seems to have embraced it," Herbert said.
The Utah Republican Party has sued the state over SB54 and is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up its complaint after failing in lower courts. U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has repeatedly called on Herbert to oppose SB54 and state Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, one of the original sponsors of the law, plans to sponsor repeal legislation this year.
Herbert said the Supreme Court is the “last inning” in the debate over SB54′s constitutionality, and that he’d prefer to wait for the court’s decision before revisiting the law.
“That process needs to be completed,” he said. “Once the Supreme Court has made the decision one way or the other, then we can react to that and decide what we should do next.”
He said it’s always appropriate to consider new laws based on public interest, but that there does not appear to be broad support for a repeal.
“That doesn’t seem to be what the people are asking for,” Herbert said. "I think that is more political opportunism for some out there."
Lawmakers are also expected to debate a number of changes to the state’s process for ballot initiatives, after three such efforts successfully qualified for the ballot — and received majority support of voters — last year.
Herbert said initiatives are good for getting the Legislature’s attention, and that he supports the ability of voters to enact legislation, even though it’s not the optimum way to create new laws. He said he’d support revising the process, particularly to create better consistency for individuals adding their signature to or removing their signature from a petition.
Two bills this year would impose restrictions on a woman’s ability to have an abortion. One proposal would ban the procedure beginning at 15 weeks after conception, while the other would make it illegal to perform an abortion based on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
Both bills, if enacted, would likely be challenged in court on constitutional grounds, and the Utah Attorney General’s Office estimates that defending a 15-week ban could cost the state more than $2 million.
Asked about the proposed ban, Herbert said science and medicine have advanced since the Supreme Court established a constitutional right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade, and that it’s possible the conventional definition of a fetus reaching viability at 20 weeks may need to be reconsidered.
“Some fights are worth having and cost is a secondary issue,” Herbert said.
Herbert said he’s sensitive to both a woman’s right to choose and control her own body, as well as the life of the unborn child.
“I’m a pro-life guy,” Herbert said. “When you hear a heartbeat after 6 weeks, it should give us pause. Are we doing the right thing?”
Hate crimes and LGBTQ rights
On Wednesday, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said that the Utah-based faith is not opposed to legislation that would add enhanced penalties to crimes in which a victim is targeted based on factors like their gender, race, religion or sexuality.
The church’s lack of support has long been seen as an impediment to updating the state’s current hate-crimes law, which has never resulted in a successful prosecution.
“Continually, we’re being blamed as the ones holding this up, and so we wanted to let people know that since 2016, we have not taken a position on hate crimes, and we are not opposed to a hate-crimes piece of legislation,” the church’s lobbyist, Marty Stephens, said.
Herbert said he had not yet seen the proposed bill, but that the topic is worthy of discussion and debate. He also said any such proposal should include protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“They ought to feel safe, they ought to feel loved,” Herbert said. “Anything we can do to enhance that, we ought to do.”
The governor also appeared to take sides in competing Republican bills to either clarify the process for people to change the listed gender on their birth certificate, or to prohibit those changes. The ban bill, sponsored by Grantsville Republican Rep. Merrill Nelson, has been perceived as an attack on transgender individuals and criticized for its definition of gender, including that women have “anatomical characteristics that appear to have the purpose of performing the natural reproductive function of providing eggs and receiving sperm from a male donor.”
Herbert said people ought to have the ability to identify as they choose, including in regards to their gender and sexuality.
“If they want to have that on a public record, there ought to be a process for them to have that happen,” Herbert said. “I think most people would welcome it, and I think there’s no reason why we should stop it.”