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Utah governor says hate crimes law should be considered

FILE - Gov. Gary Herbert reveals his budget recommendations for fiscal year 2020 at Silicon Slopes headquarters in Lehi on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018.
FILE - Gov. Gary Herbert in Lehi on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. Herbert said Thursday a hate crime law should be considered by the 2019 Legislature and that members of the LGBT community should be able to feel safe in Utah.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday a hate crimes law should be considered by the 2019 Legislature and that members of the LGBT community should be able to feel safe in Utah.

"We think there's a benefit there for stopping crime," the governor said during his monthly news conference on KUED of enhancing penalties for crimes targeting victims because of personal characteristics such as race or sexual orientation.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not oppose hate crimes legislation, Marty Stephens, the church's director of government and community relations, told the Deseret News Wednesday.

"We think this is an issue that the Legislature should rightfully wrestle with and come up with good public policy so that people are protected, whatever the Legislature feels is the best way to do that," Stephens said.

The church's position, Herbert said, "can't hurt the possibilities. I don't know that it changes everybody's mind. But I think it's certainly a discussion we ought to have, and I welcome the debate."

Asked if the LGBT community should be included in any legislation, the GOP governor said they should know they "are loved and welcomed and appreciated for who they are. They ought to feel safe. They ought to feel loved."

Herbert said that means "anything we can do to enhance that, we ought to do."

He also said he supports a way for Utahns to make sure their birth certificates reflect their gender identity. Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, has filed a bill that would not allow changes to the gender assigned on birth certificates.

"I haven't seen the bill and I don't know the motivation," the governor said.

But he said he agrees "that if people want to be identified by whatever it is they want to be identified, if that's a gender issue, if it's sexual orientation, they ought to have the ability to do that. If they want to have that on a public record, there ought to be a process, in fact, for that to happen."

Herbert stopped short of saying what action he would take on Nelson's bill.

"Without seeing the bill, I don't use the 'V' word very often," he said, adding he tries to work to shape legislation to avoid a veto. "I'd expect that's how we will work on this issue."

A hate crimes bill is expected to be introduced again this session by Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City. A hate crimes bill was voted down in 2016, and subsequent similar proposals have not been advanced by Republican leaders.

The governor also discussed other issues expected to be front and center during the 45-day legislative session the begins Monday, including the fate of the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative approved by voters.

"There's not really any simple answer. But what I do know is the people have spoken on Proposition 3," Herbert said. "I do expect it to be implemented at the will of the people."

However, he said the 0.15 percent sales tax increase imposed by the initiative isn't expected to be enough in two or so years to pay for the full Medicaid expansion available under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"That puts us in a tough situation," he said. "Some way you've got to pay that cost of expanding Medicaid. That debate needs to happen and I expect we're going to need to make some modifications for that," to cap the costs.

A "viable option," the governor said, is to once again seek a federal waiver allowing the state to provide coverage to fewer people at the higher federal funding match. The Trump administration chose not to approve a similar request last year.

He suggested that going forward with the full Medicaid expansion approved by voters and waiting to see if there is indeed a shortfall seems "very logical," given the state's more than $1 billion budget surplus, but warned that is one-time money.

"It's not imprudent for us to take a look at this in the long term," Herbert said, even though a short-term solution might be better politically. "We need to take a hard look at the fiscal aspects of this. We'll do that."

Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, has already backed off plans to introduce a bill repealing and replacing the full Medicaid expansion that would cover 150,000 Utahns, but only after the federal government approves the needed waiver.

Now, he is putting together a "bridge plan" intended to start coverage on April 1, as called for in the initiative. Christensen has said it would cover about 100,000 low-income Utahns while those left out would have other federally subsidized options.

Also Thursday, the governor apologized to federal works in Utah working without pay as a result of the ongoing federal government shutdown for "the dysfunctionality of Washington, D.C.," calling it disappointing.

"We feel your pain and we're doing what we can in the state of Utah," Herbert said.

He said the standoff between Congress and President Donald Trump has "nothing to do" with the president's demand that money for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico be included in a short-term funding bill.

"This is about who's king of the hill. This is between the president and the speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi) and their little food fight that's going on here. … You would hope they would set aside the hyperpartisanship."