Utah Senate passes replacement for Prop. 3, the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah State Senate voted 22-7 to pass a bill that replaces Proposition 3, the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative.

It came after a fairly heated debate in the Senate chamber on Monday, with Republicans and Democrats divided on whether the voter-approved initiative and its tax hike covers enough of the bills expected to come due.

"There’s a lot of talk that we’re simply repealing Prop. 3. We're not," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, who sponsored Senate Bill 96.

GOP senators fear that what voters approved is a budget buster with the sales tax hike inadequate to fund ballooning medical costs.

"I truly don’t think the voters understood that this was a bait-and-switch. That there wasn’t enough money to fully fund. But they’re saying that’s what we wanted, that’s what we wanted, give it to us," said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi.

Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, said voters "cannot overrule the laws of mathematics" and lawmakers were tasked with balancing the state budget.

The bill has been plagued with shifting numbers, but on the Senate floor they spoke of spending $70 million upfront to fund a form of Medicaid expansion for people up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level. By 2024, lawmakers believed they would be saving up to $87 million under their plan. It would implement enrollment caps, a work requirement and seek waivers from the Trump administration.

But supporters of Prop. 3 have insisted the legislature is proposing to spend more upfront than the initiative does, and cover 60,000 fewer people.

Senate Democrats questioned if the Trump administration would really grant the waivers (it hasn't so far).

"We’re going to spend $71 million of the taxpayer’s money on a bet if you will, that we’re going to get these waivers!" said Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, later adding: "We’d probably have better luck betting on the Rams at this point than getting those waivers."

Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, tried to block a plan to repeal previous versions of Medicaid expansion passed by the legislature.

"If we don’t get anything, we’re actually going back. Instead of going forward, we’re dropping everything. It’s very concerning," she said.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Senate Majority leaders said repealing everything else gives federal health officials "motivation" to work with Utah to get the waiver. But Sen. Christensen conceded to reporters that if the waiver is never granted, they're left with nothing as a backup.

"If we get no waivers, we get nothing else we’re back to ground zero without any expansion," he said.

Still, Sen. Christensen was confident they would.

"We have been assured waiver number one will come probably before the end of our session. Waiver number two, the longer term waiver, may take up to six months," he said.

Andrew Roberts with Utah Decides Healthcare, which sponsored Prop. 3, said no state has gotten such a waiver.

"Whether you voted for Prop. 3 or you voted against it, you ought to be concerned that the legislature isn’t listening to your voice," he said.

The group has been launching campaigns to save the initiative, running television ads and mobile billboards to urge people to call their elected representatives and pressure them to kill SB96. Utah Decides Healthcare told FOX 13 it is also not ruling out a referendum (a sort-of ballot initiative to repeal a law passed by the legislature) or a lawsuit.

Democrats have repeatedly held up the will of voters as reason to implement Prop. 3.

"I’m worried about sowing the seeds of distrust among the general public for the legislature," said Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City.

Speaking to reporters, Sen. Christensen insisted he was honoring the will of the voters.

"I’ve been against Medicaid expansion for, ever since it was brought up 10 years ago. The reason it’s being heard this year, my bill, is because the people wanted it," he said. "They wanted a tax increase. They wanted Medicaid expansion. That’s what we’re doing. They didn’t fill in the proper blanks, we are filling in those blanks for them. They are not obligated to balance the budget. We are."

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