Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Uncharted Waters

One of the most interesting political battles in recent Utah history will play out over the next four months – first behind closed doors, then in public.

Six Republican state leaders – the so-called “Committee of Six’’ – will try to find a compromise on Medicaid expansion.

There has never been a powerful committee like this set up before.

The six are: Gov. Gary Herbert; Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox; Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy; House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper; House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville; and Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights.

Dunnigan and Shiozawa are their body’s Medicaid expansion experts, and the sponsors of the two dueling bills in the 2015 Legislature – HB446 (Utah Cares) and SB164 (Healthy Utah).

HB446 passed the House and was never voted on in the Senate, SB164 passed the Senate and was first killed in a House committee, and then killed again in a House floor vote when Democrats tried to substitute it for HB446.

In a session ending interview with UtahPolicy, Herbert guaranteed that the “Committee of Six” would have a viable compromise by the self-imposed deadline of July 31.

The committee, which has not yet met, will convene no one knows how many times in private, and travel to Washington, D.C., to talk to federal Health and Human Services leaders.

It is assumed that Herbert will then call the Legislature back into a special session to debate, vote on, and pass the compromise Medicaid expansion.

But can the “Committee of Six” really find a unanimous compromise?

Could that compromise vote inside the committee be 4-2, with Hughes and Dunnigan voting “no”?

And would Herbert even call a special session if the “Committee of Six” vote is not unanimous?

I won’t go into the pros and cons of Healthy Utah and Utah Cares here. They are complicated, with both sides having their arguing points.

Here are some key issues:

— Will the Obama administration give Utah further waivers on Medicaid expansion – like adopting a 90-10 split on a plan (Utah Cares) that doesn’t provide health care coverage for citizens between 100 percent and 138 percent of poverty?

— Will 15 GOP senators approve of a plan that doesn’t go above 100 percent of poverty?

— Or will 38 GOP House members approve of a plan that does go above 100 percent of poverty?

— Will the U.S. Supreme Court rule in June in an Obamacare case now before it that Congress can’t force financial subsidies for people’s health care?

If the latter happens, Obamacare is blown out of the water and work by the  “Committee of Six” will likely end with no resolution.

   HB446 passed the House 56-18. But six GOP conservatives voted against it – showing they didn’t even want to have any Medicaid expansion in the 2015 Legislature. You can see the vote here.

No House Democrats voted for it.

Meanwhile, Herbert’s Healthy Utah, or SB164, passed the Senate, 17-11. But, and this is interesting, it had only 13 GOP votes in the Senate, two short of a majority. It passed because four Democrats voted for it.

Eleven Senate Republicans voted against Healthy Utah. You can see the vote here.

Maybe those 11 GOP senators didn’t want any Medicaid expansion this year; maybe they preferred the House’s less-inclusive HB446, or maybe there was a combination of both ideas.

It is rare that Senate GOP leaders allow the minority Democrats to make a major decision in that body.

And it shows that whatever the “Committee of Six” comes up with – if that compromise doesn’t get at last two more GOP Senate votes, then, once again, Senate Democrats will have a say in whether the compromise passes in the Senate.

No legislative Democrats sit on the “Committee of Six” – it is all Republicans and will hold their meetings in private.

One may think that the 63-member House GOP caucus is made up of a bunch of arch-conservatives who hate Obamacare and will do just about anything to avoid it.

But that is not the case.

Actually, the large cause (so big that the majority caucus room just off of the House Chamber is being physically expanded this interim to accommodate everyone) has a number of relatively-new, more moderate, members.

Even though lawmakers had an impressive $739 million in excess one-time and ongoing tax revenues this past session, they still passed a new gasoline tax increase and an increase in property taxes to equalize public school building construction.

Those are not the actions of an arch-conservative GOP Legislature.

A number of the new GOP House members voted for HB363, the gas tax hike bill.

As they did for SB97, the property tax increase for public school building equalization funding.

House Republicans’ main concern with Healthy Utah is that they don’t believe the federal government can be trusted to keep its financial promises in Medicaid expansion – either because a new GOP president will be elected in 2016 and Obamacare repealed or greatly changed, or Congress will just realize that it can’t keep spending on entitlement programs as it has.

And something will be done to trim back spending – or at least growth — in Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

They also don’t want to commit the state to an ever-expanding new social program, which could drain state monies from other programs, like public education, or require ongoing state tax hikes to pay for it.

(Herbert and Senate leaders say those concerns have adequately been addressed in Healthy Utah 2.0, which trims the “pilot” program to two years and makes other funding adjustments. But House Republicans still don’t buy HU2.0.)

In any case, over the next four months, behind the scenes, the “Committee of Six” starts their deliberations.

The committee begins stacked, 4-2 for Healthy Utah.

Will something be found that becomes 6-0 for some kind of compromise?

Or come Aug. 1 with Hughes and Dunnigan, and the House GOP caucus, still be at odds with the governor and most of the GOP Senate?

Stay tuned for this unprecedented Utah state political exercise.