House Republicans entered the 2016 general session looking at a few “big lifts” – some new programs to adopt and pay for, and a few big issues they wanted to sidestep – or at least not stumble over.
Speaker Greg Hughes – facing his second session as House boss – tells UtahPolicy that overall it was an excellent 45 days for all House members – and the Senate, too.
“Some people saw – or wanted – a big fight over Medicaid expansion,” Hughes said in an interview Thursday afternoon.
“It didn’t happen.”
He praised House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, for drafting HB437 – the GOP House’s solution that would cover around 16,000 of Utah’s most poor, sick and needy.
It was much less that GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and Democrats wanted. But it is, at least, a start, supporters say.
“It is good policy,” said Hughes. “We can pay for it, we understand the costs, and it helps the most vulnerable among us.
“Some were lying in wait” to attack over Medicaid expansion this session. “It could have been a very contentious issue. But (Dunnigan) did a phenomenal job building broad-base support.
“For those who wanted the fog of war over this – it didn’t happen.”
Sen. President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, lauded the Medicaid expansion vote as progress.
"We haven't been able to do that before. We probably didn't go as far as some wanted, but you have to get something you can pass," he said.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, says he's hoping the minor progress the legislature made on Medicaid expansion is just a first step.
"This wasn't Medicaid expansion to any meaningful degree," he said. "This was something that could have been done regardless of the Affordable Care Act. We kept asking if this was the first step in expansion or is it the final step. The sense we kept getting is once they dealt with it, we weren't going to hear about it again. That's troubling to us. My hope is in 2017 we have a group of legislators that are willing to take a hard look at Healthy Utah if not full Medicaid expansion."
Niederhauser says the biggest accomplishment for this year's session was pretty much the same as every other year - passing a budget.
"We came up with a really good budget this year," he said. "It was really difficult because we had a lot of money to spend. But, we found ways to pay for some really big issues like education."
Hughes went on to list some other top victories:
-- Homeless funding. House Majority Whip Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, brought Utah County folks on board and got consensus for a statewide approach in HB436.
Nearly $10 million will start a three-year $27 million state effort to build or remodel new homeless shelters and clinics and increase programs for the homeless, or soon-to-be homeless.
Since Hughes came to the House in 2003, there’s been constant fighting between charter schools and regular public schools over funding.
That was tackled by an interim task force and agreements adopted this session. SB38 is a “big fix,” said Hughes.
With Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams significant water bill reform, SB246, now some Transportation Fund sales tax earmarks will go into a new, restrict water development fund – a fine example of this Legislature’s forward-looking action for the future, says Hughes.
“Some were wary (at session start) about education funding,” said Hughes.
In the end, the GOP legislative budget gave several million dollars more overall to public schools than did Herbert’s budget recommendation – more than $420 million more.