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Herbert signs off on Medicaid expansion, funding for homeless

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert signed two bills into law Friday that will fund millions in assistance for Utah's neediest.

HB436 will pump $9.25 million into homeless services and shelters, the first of three years of funding that should eventually amount to $27 million.

HB437 will provide $15 million to expand Medicaid coverage to the state's poorest of the poor, an estimated 16,000 Utahns including those suffering from mental illness, homelessness or who are re-entering society after time in prison.

The governor acknowledged the Utah Legislature, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams and prominent homeless advocates Pamela Atkinson and Gail Miller for their work to help Utah's most vulnerable.

"In Utah we are lifting people out of poverty better than any state in America today," Herbert said. "We're helping people help themselves. Not just a handout, but a hand up."

He noted that the state's 10 percent poverty rate is one-third lower than the national average of 15 percent.

"We've done a great thing," the governor said. "I feel very good about what we're accomplishing and where we're at today, but we still have work to do. We cannot rest on our laurels."

Utah Democrats were frustrated with the Legislature earlier this month when a bill that would expand Medicaid to about 105,000 Utahns in the coverage gap was struck down.

HB437 was the alternative, a plan to impose new taxes to care for the state's poorest, the only plan in three years of attempts to win the favor of House Republicans and pass the full Legislature.

But Democratic mayors McAdams and Biskupski supported the bill alongside its sponsor, House Majority Leader Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, as a stepping stone.

"We put our political differences aside and tried to accomplish what's best for those most in need in Utah," Dunnigan said.

Atkinson called the homelessness funding bill the result of leaders working together and never losing sight of the people they were trying to serve.

"This process has given a lot of our homeless friends hope — hope that they matter," she said. "And that hope for many of our homeless friends becomes a motivator. They think, 'If people out there think I'm worth saving, maybe I am.' And that self esteem, that piece of self-worth, starts to grow."

Miller's voice strained and she held back tears as she thanked lawmakers, mayors and advocates for doing something "monumental" for the homeless.

"In serving our homeless, we will learn to love them and we will help them get back on their feet to be solid citizens who contribute to the good of our city and our state," she said.

But Miller added it will take not only government funding, but also private sector money to continue helping Utah's homeless.

"There's been significant progress but it's not enough," she said. "We need to keep going. We need to strike while the iron is hot."

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

Twitter: KatieMcKellar1