The Utah Senate Health and Human Services Committee recently voted to send SCR8 to the floor of the Senate. The bill calls on Congress to fund Medicaid by means of block grants in order to allow greater state flexibility.

Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, the resolution’s sponsor, noted that “Medicaid is going down a path with more and more spending and more and more needs that are not sustainable at the federal level,” and block grants would allow Utah to “control our own destiny.” The bill came out of committee on a 5-2 vote, with Salt Lake City Democrats Sen. Jim Dabakis and Sen. Luz Escamilla voting against it. Escamilla was especially critical of the block grant idea. “With a 45-day legislative session, you envision the state Legislature taking care of Medicaid when we can’t even take care of 1,200 bills?" she asked.

That’s an appropriate question. Although we think the potential benefits and flexibility of Medicaid block grants outweigh the concerns, with regard to SCR8, it’s an open question whether spending time on a non-binding resolution is an appropriate use of the short 45-day legislative window.

As senators on both sides argue the merits of Medicaid block grants, it’s easy to overlook the fact that SCR8 wouldn’t create Medicaid block grants. It amounts to a “message” bill that offers recommendations to Washington, D.C., without any assurance that Congress will pay attention to what the Utah Legislature suggests. It’s a statement of opinion, not an actual legislative accomplishment. As such, it likely doesn’t merit the kind of heated debate that it has generated.

Message bills can be very attractive to legislators, because they allow lawmakers to take a principled stand on an issue without having to deal with any practical consequences. Those who championed the resolution can go back to their constituents and claim victory without having to deal with the practical considerations raised by Escamilla. Likewise, Escamilla and Dabakis can claim that they struck a blow against Medicaid block grants when the legislative reality would likely have remained the same with or without the resolution in question.

That’s not to say that message bills can’t serve an important purpose. National issues with a unique bearing on Utah would benefit from the Legislature’s participation in the conversation, and a non-binding resolution can be an effective vehicle for stating Utah’s opinion. The issue here is a question of priorities. While it is nice to know where Utah stands on Medicaid reform, it would be more appropriate to use the short legislative session to spend time on legislation that carries the force of law.