The 2016 General Session of the Utah Legislature ends on midnight next Thursday. Between now and then, there is an enormous amount of work left to do. The bills that have passed through both the House and the Senate can be found here.
For those of you who are reading this update for the first time, my previous messages can be found in the column to the right.
Hot Topics on the Hill – Healthcare Coverage
The debate concerning healthcare coverage remains very controversial. Recent polls show that most Utahns favor the Healthy Utah plan or full Medicaid expansion. Compared to HB 437 (discussed below), both plans would cover more Utahns at a much lower cost per person and would return millions more federal tax dollars to our state. These are taxes already paid by Utah taxpayers that are being used to cover residents of other states.
Sen. Gene Davis has proposed full Medicaid expansion, which would cover 105,500 Utahns. His legislation, SB 77, passed a Senate committee and is awaiting debate by the full Senate. Rep. Ray Ward’s HB 302 is a proposal similar to the Healthy Utah bill that passed the Senate last year. Unfortunately, the Republicans are holding his bill in the Rules Committee and are not allowing it to be debated. I support both of these bills.
Rep. Jim Dunnigan, the House Majority Leader, proposed a more limited approach. HB 437 extends coverage to only 17,000 Utahns in the coverage gap. While this would provide health insurance to more people than are being covered, this proposal benefits fewer people than either of the other plans. Supporters of HB 437 also appear to have very little interest in extending coverage in the future for those remaining in the coverage gap.
HB 437 was debated by the full House on Friday. Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck expressed serious concerns about those who will be left behind by the limited legislation. She also pointed out that under the actual language of the bill, coverage may not be maintained even for those in the limited population that are supposed to be included. She also discussed her concern that there is a more beneficial and fiscally responsible option. Rep. Sandra Hollins, a social worker, articulated the dilemma of supporting the individuals who will be covered by this plan versus standing with the large number of people that are being left behind by HB 437.
The bill passed the House (55-17) and will next go to the Senate for their consideration. All Democrats and some Republicans voted against the bill. For all advocates of full Medicaid expansion, this was an incredibly hard decision.
A very informative Tribune editorial evaluating this bill and a cartoon from Pat Bagley, which discusses the bill can be reviewed here. The editorial noted: “Worse, and totally betraying any claims of fiscal responsibility, the Dunnigan plan is so out of keeping with federal incentives that, by limiting its benefits to so few, it leaves some $500 million a year in federal aid unclaimed. That’s half a billion a year that would, with real health care expansion, flow into the state, first to its doctors and hospitals, then to their employees, then to all the people they do business with, multiplying through the state economy over and over, to the benefit of all. Including, through higher tax revenues, the state.”
Personal exemptions from immunizations for students in public schools are rising in Utah. Rep. Carol Moss is sponsoring legislation that will help protect the children whose parents have exempted them from immunizations. The bill does not change the law allowing parents to opt out of immunizing their children, but creates a 20 minute long education module that prepares those parents on what to do in the event of an outbreak. HB 221 passed the House on Friday with the closest vote possible: 38-37. I voted for this legislation.
Higher Education Building Requests
Democratic Caucus meetings arealways open to the public and we often have a packed room. Last week, University of Utah President David Pershing and Dr. Vivian Lee, Senior Vice President for Health Sciences, made a presentation about the need to fund a new medical school building. According to Pershing and Lee, the over 50 year-old facility, which has a number of safety concerns, needs to be replaced with a modern building that can better facilitate the training of our future doctors. The University of Utah trains two-thirds of the doctors in Utah. The vast majority of the cost of the new building would be covered by private donations.
I met with Utah Valley University Vice President Cam Martin, Trustee Jack Sunderlage, along with Presidential Intern, Alex Fish. State budgets are being finalized and they wanted to discuss funding their new arts building. UVU is one of the largest universities in the state and is the fastest growing. Currently their arts students are crowded into the halls, next to auto shops and anywhere they can find room. According to the information we received, the arts building will help to meet demand and continue to enable the university to extend the best educational opportunities for their students.
The Rural Caucus
I attend the Rural Caucus every Friday at 6:45 a.m. This helps me better understand the perspectives of those not living in our urban districts. At our final meeting of the session, we honored Garfield County Commissioner Dell LeFevre, a close friend of mine. Dell has served for 40 years on the commission and is a military veteran. Dell and his wife Gladys, who served on the Garfield County School Board, have hearts of gold. They have adopted 14 children from all over the world. They live in Boulder, Utah.
I appreciate getting your input on the many bills and appropriations requests that are still pending. I personally read every email message I receive but have very limited time to respond, so please let me know if you need to hear back. Remember to mention the specific bill or funding request you are writing about. As always, I will follow-up if I need more information from you. Please include your home address, because I prioritize responding to my constituents first.