The 2019 session of the Utah Legislature is underway, which means state representatives and senators are making decisions that could have major impacts on the residents of Moab and Grand County. Thus far, just over one week into the 45-day legislative session, some bills, such as a rewrite of voter-approved Medicaid expansion, have generated lots of interest and debate while others have flown under the radar.
Back in November, voters approved Proposition 3, which promised to expand Medicaid coverage to approximately 150,000 low-income Utahns. The New York Times reported that Prop. 3 received 53 percent of the vote. However, on Monday, Feb. 4, Utah senators voted 22-7 for Senate Bill 96, a replacement Medicaid expansion plan. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the new plan “initially costs considerably more money to cover fewer people” than Prop. 3. All six Senate democrats opposed the bill, with only Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, breaking party ranks.
Prop. 3 would have allowed Utahns earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level (about $16,750 a year) to enroll in Medicaid, but SB96 only covers individuals with an income at or below the poverty level (about $12,140). That change leaves about 60,000 people to purchase subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act individual market.
Currently, Utah’s Medicaid program covers parents with dependent children in households with incomes up to 60 percent of the poverty level. Save for a few exceptions, adults without dependent children are ineligible. Those who don’t qualify but earn less than 400 percent of the poverty level can obtain tax credit subsidies to help pay the premiums for private insurance.
To pay for the state’s share of the increased cost from expanded coverage, Prop. 3 included a sales tax increase of 0.15 percent. Republican senators expressed fears that the sales tax hike would be inadequate. “I truly don’t think the voters understood that this was a bait-and-switch. That there wasn’t enough money to fully fund,” said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi.
Frustrating supporters of Prop. 3 is that despite the smaller expansion in coverage, SB96 will still cost more, though that point has been challenged by Senate Republicans. Fiscal analysts originally estimated the Senate’s bill would cost $72 million over the next two years, whereas Prop. 3 would have created a budget shortfall of about $10.4 million by 2021. Updated numbers released just prior to the Senate’s debate on Monday revised the estimate to a two-year cost of $49 million, but the Salt Lake Tribune reported, “Senate leaders and the bill’s sponsor, North Ogden Republican Sen. Allen Christensen, continued to cite the $72 million figure.”
Since SB96 would only partially expand Medicaid, the federal government would initially have to pay 70 percent of the total cost, compared to 90 percent under Prop. 3. Senate leaders acknowledged the higher initial price tag but argued the costs would ultimately drop when the federal government approves a waiver that would allow Utah to get extra federal money without a full expansion of Medicaid.
Notably, Andrew Roberts of Utah Decides Healthcare, an organization that sponsored Prop. 3, said no state has ever gotten such a waiver. Regardless, Utah lawmakers are confident the Trump administration will grant the waiver and shoulder 90 percent of the state’s Medicaid costs.
Gov. Gary Herbert’s Deputy Chief of Staff Paul Edwards told the New York Times that “the governor came away quite encouraged” from conversations with White House officials and people at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“We are in close contact with CMS, and we are encouraged by what we are hearing,” Edwards said. “But no one has put anything into writing.”
If the request for a waiver were denied, a provision in SB96 would automatically repeal the Medicaid expansion. “That means we’re back to ground zero without any expansion,” Christensen said.
Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, characterized the repeal provision as a necessary measure to put pressure on administrators at CMS. “That provision is what gives CMS the motivation to work with us in getting the waiver granted,” he said.
In addition to seeking a waiver from the Trump administration, SB96 implements other cost saving measures like enrollment caps and a work requirement. The bill would freeze enrollment if the Medicaid expansion costs were projected to exceed money appropriated by the Legislature. Fox 13 reported Utah lawmakers believe by 2024, the state will save up to $87 million under their plan.
Supporters of SB96 tout it as a fiscally responsible compromise, but its opposition argues it goes against the express will of the people. After passing through the Senate, the bill now moves to be considered in the Utah House, where leaders have been supportive of replacing Prop. 3. State officials told The New York Times Monday that the bill could be on the governor’s desk “in a week or two.”
According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Herbert identified education as his number one legislative priority. That emphasis is reflected in the more than 60 education bills being considered this session. Topics include school safety, mental health counseling, sex education and a restructuring of the Utah Board of Education.
The only published bill dealing with school safety comes from Rep. Joel Briscoe, though there will likely be more to come. Briscoe’s proposal would limit the open carry of guns around schools to make Utah schools “psychologically more secure,” he said. His bill would create a 500-foot buffer around all public K-12 schools where people, even those with permits, are banned from openly carrying a firearm.
Perhaps the most divisive education bill this session is the one that seeks to let teachers use standardized test scores when calculating grades. Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, made the proposal, but some parental rights groups say the measure will unfairly punish students who opt-out of year-end tests. State law currently prohibits schools from motivating students to participate in standardized tests by providing a boost in grades for good performance. House Bill 118 would amend the code so teachers could give credit to students who do well, but it would still forbid the punishment of those who do poorly or opt-out.
Another bill sponsored by Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, would eliminate the system that assigns schools letter grades based on their performance. The move follows a year where schools were able to drop letter grades in favor of more nuanced rankings (See “Schools get ‘typical’ grades” in the Jan.10 issue of The Times-Independent). However, the state mandated a return to regular grades next year.
The shift from letter grades to rankings ranging from exemplary to critical needs is mostly “a semantics change,” Poulson said, but the new terms could result in a more diverse and informed view of how a school is performing. Notably, similar bills have appeared in the Legislature nearly every year since the grade system was implemented five years ago. This session, leaders who opposed previous bills have now retired, so it may gain more traction. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that HB198 received a unanimous vote from the House Education Committee and will now move to the full body for consideration.
A bill proposed by Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, seeks to clarify what teachers can and can’t say about contraception. HB71 would allow educators to discuss “the medical characteristics, effectiveness and limitations of contraceptive methods or devices.” The requirement that teachers promote abstinence as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases remains intact. While the bill would allow for more detailed discussion of contraceptive devices, there could still be no advocacy for them. Ward said he is attempting to define the line between “providing medical information and advocating” and clear up teacher confusion surrounding the issue.
Another bill seeks to restructure the Utah State Board of Education. Meanwhile, that board has asked for a large increase in funding. The highest request is for a $176 million to increase the value of the weighted pupil unit to 5.5 percent. The WPU is the foundation for how Utah’s public education system is funded. It represents the cost of a program and is used to distribute funding to local education agencies. The school board also requested $30.6 million in ongoing funding and $65 million in one-time funding to promote school safety. The last of the board’s big asks was for $17.2 million to revamp the state’s information management system.
Former San Juan County commissioner and newly elected state Rep. Phil Lyman has introduced his first piece of legislation in HB179. The bill would impose criminal sanctions on anyone who “knowingly places or authorizes the placement of a temporary or permanent barricade” on any public road.
The move calls back to 2014, when Lyman organized an illegal ride in Recapture Canyon to protest the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to close the route to motorized use due to density of archaeological sites contained in the area. Lyman received a 10-day jail term for the stunt.
Should Lyman’s legislation pass, the tables would be turned. It would make blocking a class A, B, C or D road — or any right of way under the now repealed law known as RS2477 – a class C misdemeanor, which could be punishable by a jail sentence up to 90 days and a $750 fine.
Theoretically, the law could be used against federal land managers who close routes through an open planning process, even if those roads are deemed to be unnecessary or destructive.
Taxes and Budgeting
New House Speaker Brad Wilson began the 2019 legislative session with a call for a historic tax cut. In his budget proposal, Gov. Herbert suggested a $200 million tax cut, but Wilson has something even larger in mind. He aims to cut taxes by “at least $225 million,” which would set the record as the largest tax cut in Utah state history. Wilson plans to cut the sales tax rate while simultaneously broadening the tax base.
Wilson has yet to provide many specifics on how the tax cut would look, but he has suggested new taxes on things in Utah’s service-based economy, like landscaping services or streaming services such as Netflix. According to the Deseret News, “It’s not clear how much the tax rate would need to lower to achieve a $225 million tax cut, because Wilson said it would depend on how much lawmakers could broaden the base.” The cut could come from sales tax, income tax or both.
“Whether it’s $200 million or $225 million in terms of a tax cut, there’s a bigger effort here,” Wilson said. “The more important piece of this is what comes first, which is fixing our broken tax structure and broadening the base and lowering the rate. If we accomplish that or when we accomplish that, then it gives us a lot of options in terms of what we can do to help citizens keep more money in their pockets.”
Lawmakers will also spend the session deciding how to allocate an estimated $1.2 billion surplus from the state income tax. The Utah Constitution requires that money be spent on public education, but Herbert’s budget calls for a roughly $500 million boost to public and higher education. Since the sales tax has essentially run dry and depleted the general fund, income tax revenue will be the only major source of funding for new government programs this year. The budget for higher education includes income and sales tax revenue. Therefore, if the higher education budget was filled through the income tax money in the education fund, sales taxes going toward colleges and universities could be shifted to other priorities.
The surplus puts lawmakers in an odd position. While the state is flush enough to push for a $225 million tax break, many Republicans are simultaneously arguing that the state doesn’t have the money to fund voter-approved Medicaid expansion.