Anatomy of the Medicaid Expansion Impasse

So is it down to this: Gary Herbert vs. Greg Hughes?

Mano a mano. Two men in the ring, facing each other.

Hughes, the new speaker of the Utah House, doesn’t see it this way concerning the tough negotiations over Medicaid expansion — which will either succeed or fall apart by midnight Thursday.

But Senate sources told UtahPolicy on Wednesday – with just one day left in the 2015 Legislature — that any compromise between Healthy Utah (Herbert) and Utah Cares (Hughes) is between the speaker and the governor.

Hughes told reporters Wednesday afternoon – with 34 hours left before adjournment – that it wasn’t just the governor against most of the House Republicans over Medicaid expansion.

The Senate has a role to play as well, said Hughes, R-Draper.

“It still takes three to tango,” said Hughes, a former boxer.

And House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, sponsor of Utah Cares, who has been meeting daily with Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, the sponsor of Herbert’s Healthy Utah plan, said 24 hours is a long time “in dog years” – or the negotiating period in the final days of any Utah Legislature. Shiozawa says if it was just him and Dunnigan in the room, "we'd probably come to a deal."

Senate leadership seems perplexed by the impasse. President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, says the whole process has been so difficult, he hopes lawmakers can leave the hill able to still discuss the issue once the legislature adjourns Thursday night. 

Hughes says he’s optimistic. 

Shiozawa says he’s optimistic. 

Tuesday Herbert said he’s optimistic.

Niederhauser says he's optimistic.

That’s a lot of optimism.

But conservative House Republicans also know that if the Senate compromise is made – two years of Healthy Utah to get the 90 percent federal match, then turn poorer-Utahn-health-care over to Utah Cares – they will face even more pressure (if that’s possible) in 2016 to dump Utah Cares and stay with Healthy Utah.

And so what did all this political pain and suffering get the House Republicans?

It’s also a test by fire for the new House GOP leadership team – Hughes, Dunnigan, Francis Gibson and Brad Wilson.

They may be backed today by most of their House caucus in the insular womb of the 2015 Legislature.

But those 63 House Republicans will be facing voters in 2016, and all the political power that’s behind Healthy Utah this year will be on their necks next year.

Asked Wednesday afternoon about this or that possible Medicaid compromise, Hughes said he wasn’t going to negotiate with the governor and the Senate in the media.

Fair enough.

Now, what can be done to either move the House GOP caucus towards yet another Medicaid expansion compromise, or get Herbert and Senate Republicans to accept a mostly-Utah Cares solution?

No real answer?

OK, let’s talk about something else.

Better to sing the praises of the gay/lesbian anti-discrimination and religious compromise bill – something that Hughes says is historic and which he believes will pass the House and go to a welcoming Herbert.

Or the gasoline tax compromise.

A new UtahPolicy poll by Dan Jones & Associates finds that nearly 60 percent of Utahns want their fuel taxes raised.

And Hughes says he believes the Legislature will do it.

(When was the last time Utah Republican legislators pushed for a tax increase – especially in a year that sees a $739 million surplus?)

Hey, there’s even more: To equalize school districts capital outlay funds, this GOP-Legislature is even going to approve a $75 million property tax hike.

If it weren’t for this darn Medicaid expansion fight, the 2015 Legislature would be known as the most can-do lawmaking, budget-setting, corrections-reforming group in recent Utah history.

So, can Herbert vs. Hughes come up with something?

We’ll see.