Proposal Would Place Non-Binding Public Referendum on ‘Healthy Utah’ on the 2016 Ballot

Utah State Capitol 10How do you get a group of part-time legislators to move on a subject they may fear to move on?

Well, one way is to give them political cover – to prove that most of their constituents want something that legislators don’t want to give.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah Medicaid expansion is one good example.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, has introduced HB275, a bill that would set up a process whereby the Legislature could place on a general election ballot a non-binding question, and have citizens vote “yea” or “nay.”

The key is that the referendum would be non-binding, meaning the citizens would not be taking any real action themselves.

Instead, legislators would see exactly where citizens were on an important issue of the day – like adopting the governor’s long-embattled Healthy Utah plan to provide health insurance coverage for around 83,000 low-income Utahns.

House Republicans have steadfastly refused to pass Healthy Utah, which the state Senate passed with a few Democratic votes last year.

“We want citizens to have a say on this,” said Arent, the House Minority Caucus Leader.

HB275 is the referendum process bill. Soon Arent will introduce a companion referendum bill that would specifically call for the Healthy Utah vote on the November ballot.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who has worked on Medicaid expansion for more than two years, – including coming up with a failed “Gang of Six” compromise last summer – said he doubts House Republicans will want to put Healthy Utah before voters.

“It would cost (the state) at least $85 million from our General Fund,” Hughes told UtahPolicy Wednesday morning. “We don’t have $85 million” in the General Fund – which has come up short of expectations this year.

Hughes said instead of a referendum on Healthy Utah – which is not supported in the House – it would be best to wait for House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan’s Medicaid expansion bill soon to be introduced. It will not take Obamacare Medicaid funds – as Healthy Utah would – and will help fewer low-income folks, but is sustainable, said Hughes.

Hughes said he won’t “interrupt” Arent’s bills, and they will go through the normal House committee process.

Arent said she has spoken to several Senate Republicans and believes that body may welcome a public vote on Healthy Utah.

But she has to get it out of the House first.

“I hope (House Republicans) will want to hear about this from voters. We’ll see.”

Various polls over the last several years, by UtahPolicy’s Dan Jones & Associates and others, have shown consistent support for Healthy Utah.

There is, however, another political aspect of a November vote on Healthy Utah.

Herbert (Arent said she hasn’t yet talked to the governor about the Democrats’ plan) is facing a stiff intraparty challenge by Republican Jonathan Johnson this spring.

Johnson has come out against Healthy Utah and Medicaid expansion that takes federal funds.

Putting Medicaid expansion on the November ballot could play into the governor’s race, and into legislative races as well – perhaps putting some GOP legislators in difficult positions in swing districts against their Democratic opponents.

Currently, lawmakers can put a proposed law change before voters, and they can just ask a question. But how the later happens is not clear.

And, in fact, this week a group of leading business officials have officially asked the Legislature to do just that – put before citizens this November an increase in the state income tax of just under one percentage point.

Hughes said he is not opposed to that income-tax-hike referendum, but he wants to see the exact language first.

There needs to be specifics, said Hughes, and he’d like to put before voters how exactly that new education money would be spent – perhaps something along the lines of having the new money going directly to local schools or other in-school programs.

The voters “need to know what they get for raising their taxes,” said Hughes.

“Whatever the tax hike is, it needs to be tethered to something concrete,” the speaker added. “We have to see the exact language” of such a ballot question.

However, there will likely be political pushback from some conservative groups that don’t even want voters themselves to raise their own taxes.

These groups will probably argue that big names, big money and pro-teacher groups like the UEA will run an effective public campaign to convince voters to vote yes – and smaller fiscally conservative groups – that can get the ears of conservative Republican legislators — won’t be able to compete for voters.

Also, there is a natural dislike among so-called constitutionalist lawmakers not to give to voters powers they believe the Founding Fathers meant for them: They are representatives of the people and, accordingly, should have the authority to make taxing and other important decisions.

It appears at first blush, Arent’s bills – and Healthy Utah — will have a harder time making the ballot than an income tax hike for schools.

All nonbinding votes by citizens.