Leavitt, who was secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services for the George W. Bush administration, has returned to Utah and is running a private health care consulting firm, among other projects.
Leavitt also spoke in favor of a citizen initiative that, if successfully getting on the 2014 ballot, would provide an alternative route to the Republican and Democratic primary ballots for more moderate state and federal candidates and bypass the current caucus/convention nomination route.
Leavitt said he hopes the initiative-backers don’t have to go the expensive and time-consuming petition route – that Utah’s Legislature (which convenes next Monday) will do it on its own.
But the chances of that are not good, since both the Republican and Democratic legislators got their party nominations via the current caucus/convention route.
Leavitt spoke on a number of issues, and admitted that for the first time he was speaking publicly about what he learned in six months of organizing behind the scenes GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s transition team, anticipating he would be elected U.S. president.
Much of that work – which amounts to specific plans and political scenarios – has been turned over to U.S. House GOP leaders, who promise to use it as a basis for trying to change America over the next four years of Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.
Leavitt said at one time he had 400 experts working on specific budgets and policies for huge federal departments, like defense and health care. He said if Romney had won, the U.S. would see a “jolt” in economic development, just as Utah has seen in the last decade mainly through empowering the private market system which, if properly stimulated, would create many more jobs than any federal stimulus package could.
If Romney had won, on his first day in office he would have signed dozens and dozens of executive orders dealing with all kinds of federal issues, said Leavitt, who drafted many of the orders himself.
He did not say who he and Romney had tapped as top federal department secretaries and under secretaries under a Romney administration – also part of his transition chief job – nor whether Romney would have made Leavitt White House chief of staff, a position much rumored in the Romney campaign.
In answer to a question from the audience, which packed the 18th floor Zions Bank board room, Leavitt said he purposely didn’t watch TV for several weeks after Romney’s defeat – he just didn’t want to see all the finger-pointing and blame over Romney’s loss.
But he added that the national Republican Party clearly has to do better with emerging demographic groups, like Hispanics and young Americans.
The exact plans for outreaches are yet unknown, said Leavitt.
“We do have to broaden our base,” he said.
He noted that it has been 20 years since he was first inaugurated, coming up on 10 years since he resigned his office to join the Bush administration – enough time for him to reflect what worked during his time as Utah’s top executive.
Overall, Utah is doing great, Leavitt said.
It has the second-best economy among the states, behind only North Dakota, which is going through an oil boom and has many growth problems Utah doesn’t want.
“I am amazed” that Utah went through the Great Recession and comes out today with a $300 million Rainy Day Fund.
Both to protect higher and public education funding, it is key that Utah government get control of Medicaid funding.
It was 4 percent of the state budget when he began his governorship in 1993, and it is now 17 percent to 18 percent and still growing, he said.
“In our asset of cultivating our workforce” and adequately funding higher and public education, it is not an issue of one (Medicaid) or the other (crafting a good workforce),
“We have to have both,” said Leavitt.
That’s one reason Utah should keep its own Avenue H exchange, and adapt it to the new Obamacare Medicaid expansion, he said.
In his own health care consulting firm, just 43 employees, Leavitt said when his firm’s health care insurance provider told him last year premiums would be going up 22 percent, he gave his employees 80 percent of the fee (as he was providing) plus 6 percent more, his workers went to Avenue H.
They didn’t seek a plan that paid for 80 percent of the cost, but 100 percent, taking on more risk and higher deductibles and getting what they believe is a better deal.
That is great, he said.
For it let’s them customize the kind of health care insurance they want.
While accommodations must be made to craft Avenue H into the new Obamacare exchange, Gov. Gary Herbert and the Legislature’s GOP majority should do it, Leavitt said.
At a recent House GOP caucus it was clear that leaders and many caucus members didn’t want anything to do with Obamacare.
Said House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, if the feds want Obamacare, they should set up an exchange in Utah and GOP legislators would have nothing to do with it.
But Leavitt said, in so many words, that would be short-sighted.
Still, Utah officials can’t depend on Congress and the feds to pay 100 percent of the Medicaid expansion for 10 years, as they promise. Leavitt said the feds can’t afford that.
But with Utah leading, especially here, room can be made for those new clients and control costs.
Utah has to keep its Medicaid reforms, “we have to allow these powerful innovations” that Utah has begun to continue inside of Obamacare (Leavitt calls it the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, not Obamacare).
Reforming Avenue H and Utah’s Medicaid system is “cutting edge,” and must be maintained in some manner, otherwise the growth in Medicaid that’s coming and will eat up any state ability to take on these increased clients and/or growing health care costs.
Leavitt used his personal experience with his father, Dixie Leavitt and a former Utah state senator, in the ever-growing Leavitt family reunions as an example of how technology is changing the American family and interactions.
The governor’s children aren’t that interested in large, day-long family reunions, organized by Dixie.
They are keeping up with the extended Leavitt family via Facebook and other Internet accesses much more than the governor personally ever did growing up and into his adult years.
“The world is dramatically changing in how we interact,” Leavitt said.
Likewise, political information and interaction is changing. And Utah being one of the few states that still have a caucus/convention candidate nominating system is behind the times, outdated and, even harmful.
Utahns used to have one of the top 10 voter turnouts in the nations.
Now it is in the bottom area of voter turnout.
There could be a lot of reasons why, but clearly one is that citizens don’t believe they have a say in how political parties pick the folks on the ballot.
Leavitt, some of his colleagues at his consulting firm and members of his former administration, are behind a growing group of Utahns (many who consider themselves “mainstream Republicans and Democrats) seeking an alternative route to the party primary ballots.
Leavitt said he probably wouldn’t have been picked as governor if he hadn’t gone through the caucus/convention system – he didn’t have big name I.D.
But, he said, today there needs to be an alternative route to the primary ballot, not doing away with the caucus/convention system, but adding to it.
“I’m still uncomfortable with an open primary” like California and many other states have, he said.
“But we need a change, to keep Utahns involved (in voting) and turn this low voter turnout statistic around,” he said.
He hopes the Utah Legislature will take this issue up.
But so far no bills have been pre-filed on opening up the primary – although there is a bill that would permanently allow unaffiliated voters (or independents) to change their party membership at the primary polling location to allow them to vote in the close Utah GOP closed primary.
(Democrats hold open primaries.)
As reported previously in UtahPolicy, the backers of the citizen initiative believe it may well cost $1 million to $1.5 million to run a successful initiative petition.
If lawmakers don’t act in the 2013 Legislature (not likely), then they will run an initiative aimed at the 2014 ballot, with the first alternative route to come in the 2016 elections.
Two sponsors of the Zions Bank/Exoro Group consulting firm seminar Wednesday paid for a new public opinion poll, the results of which are interesting.
Those results will be detailed and analyzed in a Thursday UtahPolicy story. You can read the slide show results here.
The seminar was also sponsored by the Utah Center for Public Policy & Administration, the Utah Hospital Association and UtahPolicy Daily.