Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Time Ticks Away

There are five days left in the 2015 Legislature and what do we know?

Well, there is still the possibility that on two of the major issues of the session Utah House members may not get a vote.

That in and of itself is odd.

And let’s hope it is not a shade of things to come in future Legislatures.

As of Thursday afternoon, it appears the House will not vote on a stand-alone Healthy Utah bill supported by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, SB164.

Healthy Utah is the governor’s Medicaid expansion home-grown solution – that has a lot of heavy hitters in the community behind it, including the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and various health care groups.

And a bill, HB454, is working its way through the system that would give a seven-member, legislative committee the final say in where the new half-a-billion dollar state prison will be located.

The bill, as amended, says if Herbert doesn’t like the new prison site, he can call a special session, and the Senate and House will have to vote on prison location.

But, hey, the governor can always call a special legislative session on any topic, and he sets the agenda, so this is not some huge compromise.

So, with five working days left – and any number of compromises still in the works – it appears the House in the 2015 Legislature may avoid votes on Healthy Utah and the prison relocation.

For all the talk on Capitol Hill this session about how legislators are here to take tough votes and be accountable to their constituents, shying away from an up-or-down vote on Healthy Utah and the prison location seems odd.

Really odd.

Now, House members may be voting on some form of Healthy Utah, even though a House committee killed SB164 Wednesday night.

SB164, by Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, is Herbert’s Healthy Utah 2.0 – a modified version of the original bill that would end the “pilot” program after two years and pay for it with one-time monies, so ongoing state budgets wouldn’t be harmed.

Healthy Utah 2.0 could be merged into the House Republicans’ Utah Cares bill, HB446.

(Don’t you just love all these spiffy bill nicknames?)

The idea is Healthy Utah would be in place for two years – getting the fed’s 90 percent money match and insuring 130,000 poorer Utahns, many of whom don’t have health insurance now.

Then after two years Utah Cares would kick in, which would insure fewer people, with a fed match of 70 percent.

But those cut off of Healthy Utah would be picked up by the Primary Care Network, a wholly funded federal program because lawmakers would remove the current PCN enrollment cap.

Does the Obama administration have any say in this? GOP leaders say no – all this fits with current federal healthy care law — although I suppose that remains to be seen.

Not taking a vote on the new prison location seems like a real dodge to me.

True, the seven-member Prison Relocation Commission has been working hard for several years evaluating the current prison site in Draper and winnowing down (now to five) possible sites for the new, 500-acre prison.

So these seven legislators have become experts on the process and possible sites. And certainly you would want their best solution recommendation.

Still, on a decision as important as this – spending between $500 million and $600 million on a new prison that will be in use for 70 years or more – one would think the Legislature as a whole would want to make this decision – even if it is a tough vote.

While Utah’s 104 part-time lawmakers may deny it, everyone knows politicians love to duck votes if they can – especially if the ball on those specific issues can still be moved forward.

But not taking votes in the Utah House on prison location and Healthy Utah – when citizens’ attention has been grabbed by both – is strange.

And would be more than odd.

Finally, the Medicaid expansion – Healthy Utah vs. Utah Cares – is sucking all of the public/media attention.

And while that may drag on Herbert and GOP leaders, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

Look what is sliding by the public’s attention:

— The “nuclear option” ofHB313, which would throw back to party bosses the candidate nomination if no one gets 50 percent of the vote in a primary election.

— Gasoline tax hikes, which could double the state’s fuel taxes in 10 or 15 years.

— Education funding and State Board of Education elections, where a partisan state board could change forever the politics of education in Utah.

— Water development, where billions of dollars coming from water buyers (and who isn’t one?) will be allocated to projects in the next few years.

— Gay rights and religious freedoms.

— And any other number of issues that without Medicaid expansion would be real important issues this session.