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With the clock ticking down on the 2015 Legislature, a few high-profile issues remain unresolved and in the case of the defining issue of the session — Gov. Gary Herbert's Healthy Utah plan to insure low-income residents — prospects for a compromise is rapidly fading.

"I continue to hope, but it's a big climb to get close to anything," Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Tuesday. "We need some kind of a breakthrough, like some new possibility of a [federal] waiver or something different from Washington. I think that's what would be needed to break any logjam we have right now."

Herbert hasn't given up hope for his signature health-care proposal this session.

"I'm always the eternal optimist," Herbert said. "We're going to continue to talk. We're very open-minded about this. … Whether it will happen or not remains to be seen."

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said House Republicans have moved a long way since December, when the majority sentiment was that the state should do nothing to expand coverage to Utah's poorest residents.

"If the saying is 'It takes two to Tango,' in this case we've got three," Hughes said. "I think the House is moving. You need the Senate, you need the executive branch, as well."

Hughes said the House plan addresses the state's basic needs.

"If we're talking about human beings and leaving the place better than we found it, I think we'll find that goal met" with the House proposal, Hughes said.

So far, House leaders have not sent the bill the body passed last week to the Senate to be considered. Hughes said the Senate did the same thing when it passed Herbert's Healthy Utah bill, which he said was an attempt to bring a compromise on the issue.

Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights, the sponsor of the Healthy Utah bill, doesn't read it that way.

"Unless they send it over, it looks like they're sending us a message: They're done," he said.

The House plan would put the poorest Utahns ­— families below 64 percent of poverty and individuals below 33 percent — on Medicaid. The rest could enroll for the state's Primary Care Network, which pays for basic checkups and a few prescriptions, but is a stripped-down coverage with no hospitalization or specialist care.

Herbert's proposal would subsidize private insurance for those making up to 138 percent of poverty.

Dunnigan's plan would cover about 60,000 people and cost $64 million for two years. Healthy Utah would cost the state $25 million and cover about twice as many people.

"It's frustrating," Herbert said. "But it's not just frustrating for me. I suspect it's frustrating for the public, the people of Utah who expect us to come up here and solve problems."


Fuel tax • One area where leaders are upbeat that a compromise will be worked out is on raising or reforming the state's gasoline tax.

"I'm very optimistic," Niederhauser said. After a meeting with Hughes on that and other topics, Niederhauser described them as "reasonably close" on the tax.

Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, and Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, have outlined proposals being discussed for the compromise.

That includes imposing an initial gasoline tax hike of 5 cents a gallon, which the Senate has proposed in a bill that it has passed.

It would also change the current cents-per-gallon gas tax into something more like a sales tax, so revenues would increase automatically as gasoline prices go up over time — which the House included in its separate gas tax bill, instead of raising taxes now.

Herbert, who supports changing the gas-tax formula, predicted some form of hybrid of the two proposals will ultimately get to his desk.

The state gas tax currently is 24.5 cents a gallon, and has not been raised since 1997. Its declining buying power is one reason the state projects an $11.3 billion shortfall for priority transportation projects through 2040 — and is why a tax hike is being discussed.

However, Van Tassell said senators are reluctant to accept a proposal by the House to allow counties to ask voters to increase sales tax by a quarter-cent per dollar purchase to give cities and counties extra money for roads, and more to the Utah Transit Authority. Anderson said that is something the House sees as essential.

"That's not our favorite thing," Niederhauser said, adding the Senate GOP will likely talk about it in its caucus on Wednesday.

Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, one of those negotiating, said talks on the gas tax, are "coming along, I think. We're not there yet. There's positive movement."

"We'll have something. I know we will," said Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City. "If we are an economic engine, we need to make transportation one of our No. 1 priorities."


LGBT rights and religious liberties • Adams has two other bills moving through the Legislature, both dealing with religious liberties and rights for same-sex couples.

There is broad support for SB296, which would prohibit discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Utahns in the workplace or in housing. It also includes guarantees that individuals cannot be punished for expressing their religious beliefs in the workplace.

That bill has already passed the Senate and was approved by a House committee Tuesday and Hughes predicted it will be successful.

Adams' other bill lets county clerks and others who have the authority to perform marriages in the state refuse to marry gay couples, but if they do they must not perform any marriages in the state. Each clerk also must have someone who can marry gay couples.

But provisions in that bill aimed at further protecting religious rights have concerned some in the LGBT community, who fear the religious-liberty language could trump discrimination protections in SB296. Adams has committed to working through the issue.

There are also some loose budgetary strings to be tied up, including which new programs created by legislation will be funded. And Herbert says he would still like to see the Legislature do more for public schools than the 4 percent increase in per-pupil spending now adopted. He asked for a 6.25 percent increase in his budget plan.

"No, I'm not satisfied with the 4 percent [increase]. I think it should be higher," Herbert said. The governor said there is still time to see if trade-offs can be made to get the number even higher.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke