Let the 2016 gubernatorial campaign begin.
At least that appeared the case Monday when Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart – who is retiring this year and may run for governor in two years -- took after GOP Gov. Gary Herbert in her opening remarks.
Lockhart, R-Provo, drew at least one gasp from her 74 House colleagues when she said it is not time to rest on Utah’s laurels – Herbert loves to tout how well Utah is doing economically – “but encourage the executive; we need energy not an inaction figure in the governor’s office.”
An inaction figure?
One of the complaints against Herbert from the political right is that he is too mild-mannered, not aggressive enough in pursuit of conservative governing ideals.
Lockhart then raised her usually soft-spoken voice a bit to say:
“I can’t support, and do not understand, saddling” Utah further with Obamacare, and its “costly and catastrophic” Medicaid expansion.
Herbert said last week that he will present a plan to the Legislature this session that would accept part of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to expand Medicaid, but would find other compromises on other parts of the Obamacare program.
He declined to be specific, saying those items will come out in cooperation with legislative colleagues.
But Lockhart apparently is not on board with any such compromise.
Medicaid expansion “isn’t just a trick; it’s a trap,” said Lockhart.
While Herbert tries to find “out how to pay for it, the (Utah) House should politely decline.
“And we should drop a copy of the (U.S.) Constitution inside (the fed’s offer) and stamp it Return to Sender.”
While Lockhart’s comments on her fellow Republican were a small part of her opening address, it is those that were clearly buzzing around Capitol hallways Monday morning.
Herbert’s office issued the following statement after Lockhart’s remarks:
"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," the governor said.
Herbert has not yet said whether he will seek another four-year term in 2016.
A year ago, in her opening remarks to the 2013 Legislature, Lockhart took a few slaps at Herbert in passing.
But nothing like her direct language on Monday.
Lockhart said that “as a nurse” – she no longer practices – she knows a Band-Aid never fixes a serious wound – like the Affordable Care Act.
Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion (which Herbert said he will partly accept) “is a bait and switch, that leaves us worse off, and sooner than we think,” she said.
Lockhart told a legislative pre-conference that if Herbert is determined to take part of the Medicaid expansion, she’ll push to put some cash aside in the 2015 budget (which lawmakers will adopt towards the end of the session) when Utah’s share of the expansion goes from 0 percent to 10 percent three years from now.
That will be around $70 million for the first several years, experts say.
On other issues:
-- The House’s investigation of former AG John Swallow “was one of my saddest times” in her 16-year legislative career.
But the investigation, which is now winding down but will cost more than $3.5 million, “was also one of the finest hours in the House.”
“It did not come cheap. But if nothing else, we should resolve that honest government doesn’t come at a discount, and public integrity has no price.”
-- She opposes a gasoline tax hike. It’s not just enough to raise money from folks who have to drive and find their family budgets getting tighter and tighter.
A gasoline tax hike, talked about much before, “is neither fresh, nor new nor right. I’m not convinced that a blanket increase is the long term answer to our long term” transportation needs.
The tax was last raised in 1997, a non-election year for the Legislature. And while there will be bills this session to increase the per-gallon, GOP leaders say it is unlikely considering 2014 is an election year.
-- Lockhart went out of he way praising Utah public education teachers, saying that they are the most important “boy or girl” in the classroom.
But, again, she said large tax hikes for public education is not the right way to go until there are real, measurable methods to a better classroom education.
-- Key to that is better and smarter use of classroom technologies, she said.
A note here: Lockhart’s husband is Stan Lockhart, a lobbyist for Micron/IM Flash and the huge chip-makers’ north Utah County production plant. Stan has been appointed by the governor as a volunteer chairman of a multi-faceted committee that seeks improved teaching of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in Utah classrooms.
Stan has purposely kept a low profile in the Capitol during Lockhart’s three-year speakership. He and other family members sat in the House gallery Monday, and led a number of applauses – which appeared timed -- that interrupted Lockhart’s last major address as speaker.
-- Utah students K-12 “all need access to technology and the understanding it ensures success in the economy of tomorrow,” she said.
-- For all the good Utah has – and there is a lot of it – said Lockhart, there is still work to be done.
Now is not the time to coast – perhaps hinting that is where a Herbert-led government has been.
“For that means we are going down hill,” not forward and up hill as we should be.
“So let us encourage the governor to lead and not just follow, be innovative and not just reactive.
“For many coasting is good enough. They settle for stagnation. But we deserve better,” she said.