Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Looming Disappointments for Herbert and Lockhart

I look for two disappointments for top state politicians over the next several months.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert will not get his “Healthy Utah” Medicaid expansion through the Utah Legislature this year.

And Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart will not be chosen state superintendent of public schools by the State Board of Education.

Neither disappointment will be fatal to either politician.

Herbert may well get “Healthy Utah” through the 2015 Legislature, which convenes the end of January.

And Lockhart may go on to win other high offices after her retirement from the Legislature the end of December.

Before she surprised a whole lot of Utah politicos by announcing she applied for the superintendent job, Lockhart was looking to challenge Herbert for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2016.

She has been critical of the governor over the last few legislative sessions. And it’s my guess she did that with the hope that Herbert wouldn’t run for re-election two years from now.

But Herbert took up the challenge, and told supporters several months ago he would run again.

Around the same time, president Jonathan Johnson put his name forward for a GOP governor run in 2016, and “hired” Dave Hansen – who is running Mia Love’s 4thCongressional District campaign this year – to head up a 2016 campaign, should Johnson ultimately get in the race.

Lockhart, who does not have personal wealth, found herself in a political pickle.

Mainly, how would she compete financially with Herbert – who raised and spent $2 million in his 2012 election – and Johnson, who does have personal wealth, and another rich Republican in 2016?

As speaker, she can raise money from lobbyists and special interest groups who have business before the Legislature.

But she loses that advantage after she leaves office.

She most assuredly could make it on the 2016 GOP primary ballot – either by going through the party convention or gathering the required number of signatures under the new candidate nomination law.

But how does she raise $500,000 to $1 million to run an effective primary race?

Back in 2004, a wealthy candidate who had spent 18 months on KSL Radio with paid political hominies failed to get out of the GOP state convention.

A sitting Utah House speaker also failed to get out of the convention.

It’s notoriously difficult to raise pre-nomination cash. The big hitters don’t want to waste their donations – and don’t want to take sides before the party nominee is picked, fearing political backlash if they go with the wrong primary candidate.

If Lockhart were the superintendent, she could sit out the 2016 elections, gathering great educational experience (and a nice pay check).

Come 2018, (assuming Sen. Orrin Hatch really does retire), Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, will certainly run for the Senate, and Lockhart, from Provo, would be well placed to run for the 3rdCongressional District.

Or she could wait for 2020. Herbert (assuming he wins re-election, and he’s odds-on favorite now) won’t be running again, and Lockhart would be viable in an open seat gubernatorial race.

When you really sit down and look at it, Lockhart waiting out the 2016 gubernatorial race really makes political sense for her today.

For how could she, in a GOP primary, get past both Herbert and Johnson (or some other financially-strong Republican challenger)?

But, you may ask, wouldn’t putting your name into the superintendent circle hurt Lockhart, if she doesn’t get it?

Only on a personal, ego level, I say.

She likely will be among the finalists. (State Board members won’t want to snub a sitting GOP speaker – for the Republican-controlled Legislature puts billions each year into public schools.)

And as a finalist she could make her argument for more technology in schools and such. (Her laptop-for-every-student initiative fizzled in the 2014 Legislature, but has merit.)

And she could be setting the stage for some other non-teacher, non-school-administrator superintendent down the road.

She would become a rally-point for the archconservative wing who don’t like public school teachers (especially their union) and want to see more private/voucher education in Utah.

So not getting the superintendent’s job – but being a good candidate for the position – doesn’t really hurt Lockhart that much, in my mind.

Now to Herbert and “Healthy Utah.”

Lockhart has already said that taking up Medicaid expansion is too important to do in a likely one-day special session.

If she is chosen superintendent, she resigns her House seat and speakership immediately – so she’s out of that picture.

But other House and Senate GOP leaders have already said on the record that Medicaid expansion is too important to undertake in a, likely, one-day special session.

It should be considered along with all other budget items in the next general session, they argue.

Utah has gone through much of 2014 without Medicaid expansion, and admittedly thousands of poorer Utahns have endured no health care insurance.

Perhaps harsh to say, but what will a few more months mean?

Utahns in general don’t seem much worried about Medicaid expansion, even if some poor, ill folks are suffering.

If Lockhart doesn’t get the superintendent job, look for her to block a special session, Healthy Utah adoption now.

Herbert gains little politically by pushing the matter this fall. Best to just educate lawmakers and Utahns on his plan, and fight for it come 2015.

Can Lockhart be chosen by the State Board the new superintendent? Yes, but it’s not happening is my guess.

Can Herbert get Healthy Utah in November or December?

Sure. But it’s not likely.