SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative leaders and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox weighed in Wednesday on a pair of issues that may end up going before voters in November as ballot initiatives — tax increases for schools and Medicaid expansion.
Not surprisingly, the state House and Senate minority and majority leaders and the Republican lieutenant governor split along party lines over the issues discussed as part of a panel discussion at the annual United Way legislative preview breakfast.
Lawmakers are set to start the 45-day session of the 2018 Utah Legislature on Monday.
Democrats on the panel backed both the tax increases for schools and signing on to the federal Medicaid expansion program available under the Affordable Care Act, while Republicans suggested both go too far.
“Every one of us believes we need more funding for education,” Cox said, noting he supports “the idea behind” the initiative that would boost state sales and income taxes by .45 percent to raise $700 million annually.
But the lieutenant governor said it would be better to expand the state’s tax base than raise tax rates by, for example, getting federal action to force the collection of sales taxes paid on online purchases.
Cox said he believes the state “can get close” to the amount of additional revenue the Our Schools Now initiative would raise, warning that “it gets pretty dicey when we start messing” with the state’s tax rates.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, sees it differently.
“It’s a matter of political will. The people in the Utah State Legislature need to step up and say, ‘We’re going to make some tough decisions,'” about coming up with more money for schools, King said.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Our Schools Now “has a great purpose but it’s taking the wrong approach” by increasing taxes. “It’s not addressing the problem.”
Niederhauser said the real issue that needs to be addressed is the $600 million spent annually on transportation to supplement gas tax revenues. The Senate leader, who has called for a gas tax increase, said road users need to pay for roads.
Medicaid expansion came up during a discussion of homeless issues. The panel did not talk specifically about the Medicaid expansion initiative, known as Utah Decides Healthcare.
Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said the program is key to helping the state’s most needy. He said he is once again sponsoring legislation to accept the full expansion, which covers 90 percent of the health care costs.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, has said he believes Republicans might be ready to accept some level of Medicaid expansion if the federal government agreed to waive a number of provisions, including allowing a cap on state spending.
Hughes said the state can’t ignore what he called the fiscal realities of expanding Medicaid coverage, noting other states that accepted the program have since labeled it unsustainable because costs can’t be controlled.
Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, had tried in past years unsuccessfully to push his own version of Medicaid expansion, Healthy Utah, through the Legislature. Cox told the breakfast audience to “stay tuned” now that expansion is again being discussed.
The last word came from Niederhauser. “Full Medicaid expansion is probably not going to pass the Legislature. That’s a reality,” he said. “We all need to face that.”