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Legislature review: Fierce debate involving federal government

The 2015 legislative session is almost at the halfway mark.
The 2015 legislative session is almost at the halfway mark.
Jordan Allred, Deseret News

The 2015 legislative session is almost at the halfway mark. As usual, many bills and controversial issues are being addressed. But one big protagonist — the federal government — is driving the most intense deliberations. We explore some of those issues:

The fiercest debate is whether to expand health care coverage for low-income people using federal Medicaid money. Billions of tax dollars are at stake, along with federal red tape, under Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act). Where is this issue heading?

Pignanelli: "Man never legislates, but destinies and accidents, happening in all sorts of ways, legislate in all sorts of ways." — Plato

The Medicaid expansion fracas is best described with a “Lord of the Rings" analogy. There are multiple armies of various sizes fighting each other. Left- and right-wing forces have amassed huge troop numbers to engage in hand-to-hand ideological combat. Highly intelligent and powerful wizards are involved in smaller skirmishes with each other. These mystical brainiacs include Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, Sen. Allen Christensen, Rep. Dean Sanpei and Rep. Robert Spendlove (opposed to Healthy Utah), and Department of Health Director Dave Patton, his deputy, Michael Hales, and Sen. Brian Shiozawa (supporters of Healthy Utah). The king (Gov. Gary Herbert) has made his preference clear but wants peace in the realm.

The fight is getting nasty. Leftist advocacy organizations bombarded several lawmakers’ districts with attack brochures. This is risky for them. Disparaging Jim Dunnigan is akin to a character assassination of Mr. Rogers — it just doesn't work. Capitol Hill insiders, regardless of their position on Healthy Utah, know the key players are engaged in this contest not because of ideology, but because of a real deep policy concern. Magic rings or winged snakes cannot win this battle — only the opinion of Utahns expressed to their officials will determine the outcome.

Webb: This fight is a classic federalism dilemma: An overreaching federal government passes a national program to help low-income people, taxes state citizens to pay for it and bribes state leaders with those same tax dollars to implement the program.

If state leaders don’t implement the program they lose the tax dollars their citizens paid, and needy people don’t get the help. If they do implement the program, they have to abide by federal rules, match federal dollars with some state dollars, and worry about future escalating costs that will take funding away from other state needs.

It’s a real dilemma, and it happens over and over again.

However, I’m not sure restoring a proper balance in the federal system can happen by fighting a thousand skirmishes on a thousand issues. States always end up losing money and gaining little flexibility. We need structural, fundamental reform to restore states to their proper status and role in the federal system. Good proposals exist to make this happen. But the states will have to get organized and show unity.

I believe Gov. Gary Herbert’s Healthy Utah Plan, or something close to it, makes the most sense at this point. While fighting for structural reform, we need to be pragmatic about taking advantage of Utah tax dollars and serving those in need.

The chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, citing states’ rights, is in a fight with the U.S. Supreme Court over same-sex marriage. Could this impact the Legislature and is it a harbinger of federal-state tensions to come?

Pignanelli: Politicos are concerned that the chief justice’s actions could predict civil disobedience responses in reaction to the Supreme Court's decision. It is not difficult to discern that proponents of either side are flaunting a court ruling they feel is unjust. Summer 2015 may be extra hot.

Webb: I’m all for fighting for better balance in the federal system, but that doesn’t extend to disobeying court decisions. If we believe in the rule of law, we must follow court rulings, whether we agree with them or not. As mentioned previously, we need common-sense structural reform, rather than defying federal laws or court decrees.

The 2014 elections solidified Republican dominance nationwide, with Republicans controlling Congress, three-fifths of governorships, and more than 70 percent of legislative bodies. What does this portend for the cause of federalism?

Pignanelli: GOP gubernatorial and legislative officeholders have tapped into something — their strength at the state level is undeniable. Younger Republicans have a libertarian streak that will foster a greater push against the feds. But this same emotion prevents government intrusion into moral arenas. The net result is a new flavor of Republicans in the future that will continue the age-old fight of the Republic-constraining Washington, D.C.

Webb: Republicans have the best opportunity in 75 years to work for better balance in the federal system. I’m surprised more top Republican leaders aren’t talking about it and putting forth proposals. I’m surprised more state-based associations of elected officials aren’t making it a top priority. Balanced federalism with a focus on good governance is the solution to many of the nation’s domestic problems. Gov. Herbert is vice-chairman, soon to be chairman, of the National Governors Association. Will he provide necessary leadership?

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.