Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Herbert Flummoxed by Medicaid Expansion Failure

bernick mugGOP Gov. Gary Herbert was sideswiped this week when House GOP leaders presented Obamacare numbers to their caucus showing Utah is taking in $20 million more in federal health care dollars than Utahns are paying out in new Affordable Care Act taxes and fees.

At his monthly KUED TV Channel 7 news conference Herbert said he’s not seen the numbers and only knows what he’s heard or read about Wednesday afternoon’s House GOP caucus discussions.

At a later date, said Herbert, he will meet with GOP legislative leaders and see what numbers they are talking about.

One might think that House GOP leaders would have sent a staffer down one floor in the State Capitol to at least present Herbert aides with the new fiscal 2015 Obamacare analysis.

For months – as part of his failed attempt to sell his Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion to the Legislature – Herbert has been saying that Utah is sending $700 million back to Washington, D.C., under Obamacare, and that by not expanding the low-income health care program Utah is losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in taxes paid, but taxes not coming back to the state.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville – part of Herbert’s Gang of Six Medicaid expansion team – made it clear in Wednesday’s House GOP caucus meeting that such is not the case.

In fact, said Dunnigan – the House’s resident expert on Medicaid expansion – new accountable numbers show that in fiscal 2015 (which ended June 30) Utahns paid out $710 million in ACA taxes and fees and took in $730 million in federal health care reimbursements and subsidies.

In other words, instead of losing taxes paid by Utahns via Obamacare, the state actually saw $20 million MORE come back into the state.

That is not what Herbert and other Medicaid expansion advocates have been saying.

Was Herbert using wrong numbers?

No, the governor told reporters.

“Until yesterday we were agreeing with the numbers” with House Republicans, said Herbert.

“This is the first I’ve heard on this spin” of new Obamacare numbers in Utah, said Herbert.

“No one has addressed me directly – and I’m not going to negotiate through the press,” said Herbert.

Sounds like relations within the Gang of Six aren’t what they should be.

Herbert then pivoted, saying Medicaid expansion in Utah could be fixed in a moment if federal HHS officials would just be more reasonable, and flexible.

Herbert’s Healthy Utah expansion plan passed the Senate in the 2015 general session, getting two Democratic votes needed for its adoption.

But Healthy Utah failed badly in the House, when Democrats tried to substitute it into the GOP House’s expansion bill – named Utah Cares.

Utah Cares did pass the House. But most senators were against it, as was Herbert. So it failed to pass in the Senate.

That left Medicaid expansion at an impasse. Herbert set up the Gang of Six, which met secretly and came up with Utah Access Plus – a plan pushed by Hughes that would have assessed Utah’s health care industry – hospitals, doctors, nurses and such – to pay most of  Utah’s 10 percent share in the 90-10 split of Obamacare’s expansion plan.

Herbert has now stepped away from Medicaid expansion, saying he won’t call a special session in November on Utah Access Plus – or any expansion plan – because there is not consensus on where the state should go now.

Herbert is being challenged by fellow Republican Jonathan Johnson for the 2016 GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Johnson is running from Herbert’s political right – not exactly a wide path to the nomination since Herbert is a pretty conservative guy.

But Johnson is against Healthy Utah, or any Medicaid expansion that puts Utah’s budget at risk through growth in a new federal entitlement program.

Johnson is also against any tax hikes.

And Thursday Herbert refused to say if he supports – or will vote for – Prop 1.

That is a voter-approved increase in local government option sales taxes of 0.25 percent – the money going for city and county roads and for any transit district in the county where Prop 1 is on the ballot this November.

Herbert said it’s “still to be decided” how he will vote on Prop 1.

That’s a bit odd.

Herbert, of course, signed the bill that set up the voter-approve local option sales tax hike.

The latest UtahPolicy poll by Dan Jones & Associates finds a slight majority of Utahns favor the local sales tax hike for roads and transit.

However, Jones found that those who said they are “very conservative” politically actually oppose the sales tax hike, 49-47 percent.

And remember, Herbert is trying to win the GOP nomination next year – and state delegates to the nominating conventions are usually more conservative than Republicans at large.

Herbert also signed a transportation funding reform bill that will raise the state per-gallon gasoline tax by 5 cents come Jan. 1.

And he signed a bill that will raise property taxes by around $70 million statewide next year to equalize school district construction tax takes.

Herbert started the press conference by reporting even more good news on Utah’s thriving economy.

— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks Utah in the top 10 states in five of six categories of the “Best Stable Economies.”

— Utah gets an A+ — the only state to do so – in a national study of student financial and economic education.

— The state has a tax surplus of more than $100 million for fiscal 2015, which ended June 30.

— Herbert several years ago demanded from state department bosses that they find 25% more efficiencies in operations by 2016.

An update on that program shows state workers are 24.6% more efficient than they were several years ago, so the governor said that 25% level will more than be met next year.

— Finally Utah’s two Rainy Day Funds – in the General Fund and the Education Fund – total more than $528 million, the highest ever.

Still, Herbert signed several tax-hike bills in the 2015 Legislature.

And no doubt Johnson will be talking about that in his 2016 campaign.