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Tensions are escalating at the Capitol over Healthy Utah, with House Speaker Greg Hughes suggesting Thursday that Gov. Gary Herbert may be using the state prison as a chip in the high-stakes political game.
Despite having called repeatedly for the relocation of the Utah State Prison from its current location in Draper which is in Hughes' district the governor suggested Thursday that there's a 50-50 chance it could stay where it is.
"If we can't find a better place than Draper, then Draper is the place," Herbert said Thursday during his monthly KUED news conference.
But in the stare-down over Hughes' refusal to consider Herbert's Healthy Utah plan to expand Medicaid, which has passed the Senate, Hughes suggested the governor's comments about keeping the prison in Draper weren't happenstance.
"How quickly after you talked about [Healthy Utah] did he say it?" Hughes asked when told of the governor's comment. "[Prison relocation] is a thorough process. It doesn't bleed into [Healthy Utah] for us. But I could see how people might want to play hardball."
The governor also said in his news conference that he would veto any attempts to make a final decision on where to build the new prison without his input, an idea led by the co-chairmen of the Prison Relocation Commission, Rep. Brad Wilson and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, and fully supported by Hughes and Senate GOP leaders.
"That would cause me some consternation that would lead to a veto," Herbert said of the proposal to delegate final authority to the commission, which includes seven state lawmakers as the only voting members.
Herbert said the decision to relocate the prison has ramifications for the entire state, and he and the elected representatives in the Legislature should weigh in.
Both Stevenson and Wilson said Thursday they still support letting the commission choose from potential sites. Stevenson said geology will likely be the deciding factor and that can be decided without the Legislature.
"[It's] going to be determined by science and not political will," he said.
Wilson said he and Stevenson would talk to the governor about his concerns, but he thinks the commission could make the call.
"I'm not sure it's the best use of taxpayer money or the Legislature's time to come back into special session," he said.
Herbert insists he is not trying to use the prison relocation process as leverage in the Healthy Utah fight.
"I don't think gamesmanship is good politics," Herbert said. "I don't like the idea of, 'You didn't support me here so I won't support you there.'"
However, the governor did use the news conference to try to turn up the heat on the House, criticizing leaders for deciding in a closed-door Republican caucus not to let the bill have a hearing or a vote. The governor said the House didn't even discuss the latest version of the bill and is willing to give up $800 million in taxes paid by Utahns in their districts.
"We ought to all look for what is the best outcome and be statesmen," Herbert said. "We ought to stand tall in our positions, whatever we decide them to be on the right or on the left. We ought to say here's my justification for it and let the chips fall where they may. But we ought to be open and transparent about it."
Hughes reiterated Thursday that holding a vote to kill the bill would be "political pageantry."
Countered Herbert: "Political pageantry, I guess, is a euphemism for the public's opportunity to come in and speak."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the Senate passed SB164, the Healthy Utah 2.0 bill, to the House and would like to see a vote on the bill. He acknowledged that House rules allow leaders to bury bills without giving them a hearing.
"We have the ability to do the same thing with House bills over here," Niederhauser said. Leaders haven't discussed which bills might be bottled up in the Senate.
Hughes, in a fiery defense of the decision to kill the Healthy Utah bill, blasted "dark money" interests that are trying to "bully" legislators into voting for Healthy Utah pointing to a flier that the progressive-leaning Alliance For A Better Utah sent to constituents in House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan's district slamming Dunnigan for opposing Healthy Utah.
Dunnigan fired back with a flier defending him as "fighting the threats of Obamacare to ensure that we put Utah values first," paid for by the Hughes Leadership PAC.
"We've been told our process has been bad. We've been told our intentions have been bad and vindictive. Nothing could be further from the truth," Hughes said after GOP House members met for a third time in a closed caucus to discuss the Medicaid issue.
He said approving a program that could sunset in two years and take away coverage from tens of thousands of low-income Utahns, is "either reckless to do it that way or it's a parlor trick."