Herbert Threatens Veto Over Prison Relocation; Hits House for Blocking Healthy Utah (Updated)

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday morning that he would veto any bill that cut the executive branch out of the decision to where the new half-billion-dollar state prison should be located.

Speaking at his monthly KUED Channel 7 press conference, Herbert also said he fully expects the GOP-controlled House to switch positions and take a public vote not only on the prison location but also on his modified Healthy Utah 2.0 – a Medicaid expansion bill that passed the Senate on Wednesday.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, told reporters Wednesday afternoon that Healthy Utah (SB164) would not be debated by the full House because the bill has very little support within the 63-member House GOP caucus, there are more important issues that must be decided before lawmakers adjourn March 12, and that he didn’t want to have public votes just for “political pageantry.”

Hughes repeated that stand in his Thursday afternoon press briefing, after House Republicans met in closed caucus for two hours to discuss Medicaid expansion and transportation funding issues (the gas tax increase that may be coming this session).

Herbert was tough, but polite, in his criticism of Hughes and other GOP House leaders.

Herbert said he read Hughes’ UtahPolicy Daily guest column Thursday morning, and claimed the piece has significant misstatements and misunderstandings.

He said Hughes’ UPD piece was just inaccurate, and that in any case the original SB164 bill as introduced by sponsor Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, described by Hughes in his guest column and the bill discussed in a closed GOP House caucus last week is not Healthy Utah 2.0.

“We have answered all of the questions” that some GOP opponents of SB164 had, the governor said.

Hughes disagreed, saying basically the only difference between the original SB164 and the Healthy Utah 2.0 is that it goes from a three-year “pilot” program to a two-year “pilot” program.

Hughes said Healthy Utah 2.0 cost numbers and HHS possible waives are still in flux and that there just isn’t support in his caucus for HU2.0 or anything else.

Herbert said it is bad public policy for Hughes to keep SB164 bottled up in the House Rules Committee.  Not have a House public hearing on it and not have a floor vote for all 75 House members is just wrong, said Herbert.

Hughes, picking up a pro-Healthy Utah mailing piece sent out by the Alliance For A Better Utah, claiming such “black site” funding pieces are trying to bullying lawmakers, who may not support Healthy Utah, to change their votes under political threats – and he still won’t put out any bill that he doesn’t think has a chance of passing in these final 2015 general session days.

“I’ll be the spear point on this” to take all the political crap, said Hughes. Speaking before TV cameras were turned on, Hughes joked that he likes the political heat now being aimed his way – a Salt Lake Tribune political cartoon Thursday showed a gangster-type Hughes machine-gunning down Healthy Utah with a distressed Herbert looking on.

There are still 11 working days left in the 2015 Legislature and Herbert said he’s still optimistic that House members will vote on SB164.

He added that Hughes told him – Herbert took it as a promise – that Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion would be heard by the House this session and voted up or down.

If GOP House members do refuse to vote on SB164, then Herbert said other options are open to him. Not saying he would do it, Herbert could call legislators back into a special session on Healthy Utah 2.0, putting more political pressure on the House to at least take a public vote on his Medicaid expansion.

Hughes said if someone has an idea on how to “fund the gap” of poorer Utahns who are 0-100 percent of poverty and don’t now have health covers, let it come forward.

Well, as UtahPolicy wrote several weeks ago, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy does have HB307. Unfortunately, the feds would only contribute 70 percent for 0-100 percent of poverty coverage, while the feds will go 90 percent if a state goes 0-138 percent – so that alternative would not save Utah taxpayers as much money as Healthy Utah 2.0 plan that goes to 138 percent.

On prison location, Herbert seems to have backtracked a bit, saying it may not be the best public policy to move the 70-year Draper prison to another location and build a new $500-million-to-$600-million facility. He said he considered it a 50-50 chance the prison would move or be rebuilt on the Draper property – but wants more investigation and debate on the issue.

Three sites have preliminary been picked for the new prison by the Prison Relocation Commission, and in an open House GOP caucus last week House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, suggested that GOP leaders would like the current seven-member PRC (made up of legislators) to make the final siting decision – with legislators not having to take that public vote. Wilson, co-chair of the PRC, said he would be introducing a bill soon to give the PRC that location power.

But support within the House GOP caucus seems to have fallen off of that suggestion this week.

And with Herbert’s promise to veto any Wilson bill that gave total siting power to the PRC, well, there wouldn’t be much point in running the legislation now – as it would be unlikely that Senate and House leaders could get two-thirds votes to override such a veto.

Wilson, who spoke to UtahPolicy after the Hughes press briefing, said he’s willing to change his bill so that Herbert gets some say in where the prison goes – after all, his Division of Facilities Construction Management will oversee its buildings.

But Wilson said he still believes it is best to let the PRC make the final siting decision, and lawmakers not get involved in that. Wilson said he’s glad to work with Herbert on the prison siting issue.

Herbert said legislators, like governors, are elected to make tough decisions – like Healthy Utah and like the prison relocation.

“Let them be statesman. Stand tall, and take votes” to save Utahns $800 million in federal tax dollars in Healthy Utah and defend their support for moving the prison and where to locate it, said Herbert.

“What are they (legislators) afraid of?” asked Herbert.

Let the sunshine come in on their Healthy Utah and prison relocation decisions, take public votes and have public debates in the House over both those issues, he said.

While Herbert would have a veto over Wilson’s prison siting bill, he doesn’t have direct action he can take to force the House GOP leaders to have public debates and votes on Healthy Utah 2.0.

He could, however, threaten to veto or hold up spending on other issues.

But Herbert said he wouldn’t play such “political gamesmanship.”

“I don’t like to say when you (legislators) won’t do this, I will punish you by doing that,” said Herbert.

‘Be statesman, stand up and say hear are my reasons” for taking this stand or that, “and let the chips fall where they may on re-election. Be open and transparent.”

Clearly, more is going to be said and done on Healthy Utah 2.0 and prison relocation before lawmakers adjourn in two weeks.