House, Senate still struggling over budget

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SALT LAKE CITY — Plans to finalize the state budget once again were scrapped Friday as the Legislature's GOP majority continued to struggle to settle on how much to give House Speaker Becky Lockhart's education technology initiative.

Republican leaders in both the House and Senate met into the evening attempting to resolve the gulf between the $200 million price tag for replacing textbooks with tablet computers and the $26 million the Senate is willing to spend.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who threatened Thursday to veto the initiative if the price tag wasn't slashed to no more than $30 million, took time during a morning news conference to prod lawmakers.

"I'm concerned about the lack of effort going on," the governor said, adding he expected to see a "reasonable and rational" budget before the session ends next Thursday at midnight.

There has been friction all session between Herbert and Lockhart, R-Provo. The speaker, seen as a challenger to the governor in 2016, labeled him an "inaction figure" in her opening day speech.

Lockhart told reporters she knows she will get less than $200 million but declined to say what she's willing to accept. The House GOP caucus has not endorsed her initiative, viewed by some as a legacy project.

"I will reject out of hand a pilot program. This is a transition and a transformation," the speaker said.

But both she and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said they were confident there would be a budget agreement.

"We’re starting to make some headway on the budget. We’re at the start of some negotiations and we’re happy about that, and hopefully we’ll have a budget ready for Monday," the Senate president said midday.

The budget, along with what to do about the Medicaid expansion available to the state under the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, are the two big issues remaining to be resolved before the session is over.

The House and Senate are also split over the Medicaid expansion issue. The House GOP caucus apparently has decided to spurn the governor's earlier pronouncement that "doing nothing is not an option."

HB401, a bill reflecting Lockhart's plan to use $35 million in state funds to provide limited coverage to some of the Utahns who don't qualify for subsidies under Obamacare has been amended to send the issue to a task force for further study.

It's a good idea. But every good idea needs a good plan. We haven't seen that. There’s a big idea with a lot of money but not really a plan that goes with it.

–Gov. Gary Herbert

The bill was circled during debate Friday after Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, said the caucus needed to talk further. House leaders had already left the $35 million for the program out of the budget negotiations.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are looking at amending SB251 from Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, to give the governor more flexibility in negotiating the expansion with Washington, D.C.

Shiozawa's plan called for partially expanding Medicaid to those Utahns who fall below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, but Herbert has called for taking all of the federal money available to cover Utahns up to 138 percent of poverty.

Both plans would utilize private insurers. A Democratic proposal to simply accept the full Medicaid expansion was heard in a Senate committee's final meeting of the session Friday, but no action was taken.

Herbert told reporters he intends to try to sell his plan to the Obama administration no matter what the Legislature does.

"Don't tie my hands. Let me go back and see if I can negotiate the best deal for Utah," the governor said.

Herbert also reiterated his concerns about the speaker's education initiative.

"It's a good idea. But every good idea needs a good plan," the governor said. "We haven't seen that. There’s a big idea with a lot of money but not really a plan that goes with it."

Even educators are telling him they're not ready for the scale of the initiative, the governor said.

He also disagreed with Lockhart's proposal that the money needed for her initiative could be taken out of funding for roads because, she said, the state "has been very good" to transportation over the years.

"I don't want to dig a hole here we'll have to fill in next year," Herbert said.

He said even if lawmakers were to approve a tax increase, the initiative should not receive more than $30 million this session because it needs to be started with "a more modest approach."

Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, said he's gauging support for his proposal to raise the gasoline tax a total of 6 cents over the next six years after making a pitch to House Republicans in their last caucus Thursday.

"I'm trying to tell people it's not as radioactive as they think it is," Nielson said.

Contributing: Madeleine Brown


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