Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Gov. Gary Herbert used his sixth annual State of the State address Wednesday night to call on Utah lawmakers to approve his Medicaid expansion plan and ensure the state protects religious rights in the upcoming legislative session.
Speaking to lawmakers in the House of Representatives chamber, the Republican governor touched on the two issues expected to be among the most hotly debated this year.
Here's a look at some key points from the speech:
Herbert spent more time on his Medicaid expansion plan than any other proposal Wednesday night. The governor pledged to work with leaders in the House and Senate on the issue but said his plan is a responsible way to spend taxpayer money to help those in need. "The choice before us is stark: We can either watch our hard-earned tax dollars remain on the table in Washington, D.C.," Herbert said, "Or we can bring back a significant amount of our own money to be spent on Utahns."
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, says the governor is trying to get the best deal he can under President Barack Obama's signature health care law, but many lawmakers are concerned about what the state can afford and for how long. Democratic Sen. Gene Davis of Salt Lake City said he'd like to see full Medicaid expansion.
LGBT AND RELIGIOUS RIGHTS:
Herbert said any legislation to protect gay rights this year must also protect religious liberties. His comments follow a national appeal made Tuesday by the Mormon church for a similar balance. The church's announcement made huge waves in Utah, where the governor and most lawmakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Several bills addressing gay rights and religious rights are pending in the Legislature. Herbert said he's confident the state's elected officials can work with religious groups and the LGBT community to find a policy that treats all people with dignity and respect.
Davis said there can be balance between LGBT rights and religious rights and lawmakers need to have "a major discussion" on the issue. "He's right on the money on that one," Dunnigan said, agreeing that religious rights must be considered in tandem with any anti-discrimination legislation.
Herbert said half of all Utah inmates return to prison within three years of release, and lawmakers should pass legislation that will help reduce recidivism and the size and cost of the state's prison population. The governor and the state criminal and juvenile justice commission released a package of recommendations in November for lawmakers to consider. Among the 18 recommendations is a proposal to make some first-time drug possession charges a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Herbert has stopped short of endorsing that specific proposal.
"I'm in total agreement with that," Davis said. He and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said lawmakers should look at how they can help inmates get mental health and substance abuse treatment in order to return to society. Niederhauser said the programs will cost money but they will save some money spent on incarceration. On the specific proposals, Niederhauser said, "There's a lot of devil in that detail that needs to be ferretted out."
Herbert said Utah must stand up to an overreaching federal government to play an active role managing the state's public lands. Frustration with the federal government's management of Utah land is widespread among many Republicans and even some Democrats, who argue the state would be a better steward. The governor reiterated his support for a comprehensive plan by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to set aside Utah lands for protection, energy development, recreation and other uses. Bishop plans to introduce his plan as legislation in Congress. Herbert did not mention a Utah law he signed in 2012 that demands the federal government hand over control of more than 30 million acres of land. "We value our partnership with the federal government in areas of shared responsibility, but we will never be content to be a silent or a junior partner," Herbert said.
Niederhauser said being an active partner is "a minimum" and many in the Legislature would like to see the lands in state control. Davis said the Bishop proposal is a step in the right direction, but ultimately, the land is federal land. "Do I believe we're going to get all this federal land back? No," he said.
Herbert announced he's working with several lawmakers and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to create a new state office of Inspector General to ensure "the highest levels of ethics and official conduct in state government." Herbert offered few details about the proposal, but said it will be introduced as a bill during this year's legislative session.
Niederhauser said the idea "has a lot of merit," but he hasn't seen details yet. King said he thought the office is a great idea. "We can always do more to ensure that people behave themselves when they're in positions of public trust," he said.