Despite partisanship, King sees progress
Before the 2016 session of the Utah Legislature got underway, House Minority Leader and District 28 Representative Brian King, of Salt Lake City, said Medicaid expansion was the most pressing issue on the agenda. Several weeks into the session, King said he is concerned and dissatisfied with what has been done so far.
There are four plans being drafted, and King touched on one by Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, to make a larger point.
"It’s a relatively small-caliber bill that just covers the individuals who are most ill," King said. "At a greater cost than what we would see from full Medicaid expansion."
King said he hasn’t seen any proposal yet that amounts to much more than an incremental improvement over what Utah is already doing.
"It’s frustrating," he said. "It’s less bang for more buck. It’s irresponsible even just from a budgetary standpoint."
King’s larger point, he said, is that if a bill passes, even one that slightly improves Utah’s healthcare situation, opponents of expansion might use that as an opportunity to say the discussion is over. In essence, it might be better to do nothing and wait for another chance next year.
"My worry is that once you do something on Medicaid, people who would rather not do anything at all will say it’s now a done deal, and there is no need to revisit it," he said. "I worry if we go forward with a poor piece of public policy, next year we are not going to be in a good position to change it. Again, I’m frustrated."
House Bill 220
House Bill 220, introduced by Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, would remove the requirement that the Legislative Management Committee and its Audit Subcommittee maintain a balanced membership of Republicans and Democrats. The change would allow the majority party to have higher representation. It passed through the House this week and is awaiting a hearing by the Senate. King voted against it, as did Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber. Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, voted in favor.
"I don’t think it’s an understatement to say this is nothing but a power grab," King said. "An effort to consolidate power in what is already a super-majority in the Utah Legislature. It’s very troubling, especially because nobody has identified any problem with those committees."
King said he has asked for an example of either committee’s balanced membership causing a problem and has gotten no answer. He pointed to the audit of the University of Utah’s athletics program as evidence in his favor.
"Auditing the athletics, that is set up to be a big fight, right? Nope. It passed, 4-0," he said. "I didn’t think the audit was warranted. But I voted for it because I trust our auditors. They are fair and thorough."
King said he worries if one party has partisan control of those committees it could cause problems, or even simply the perception of impropriety.
"If the Republicans have partisan control over what audits are done, and selects the auditor general, do you really think our auditors will be considered as trustworthy as they are now? I don’t think so," he said.
King did not mince words in his assessment of the measure, calling it "outrageous" and saying he is "offended at a very fundamental level."
"I think the people of Utah, when they see what is going on, are going to be offended, too," he said. "We want to keep these kinds of decisions above partisanship, and it’s worked for 40 years. But I guess no power is enough power when you are a super-majority."
State of the Legislature
King expressed trepidation before the start of the session that partisanship was taking hold in an unhealthy way, and HB 220 would seem to strengthen that argument. However, King said he has been refreshingly surprised by the day-to-day functioning of the Legislature.
"Republicans and Democrats have still been working closely on a number of bills," he said. "We’ve talked closely with Republicans and we’ve been able to get some bills through."
King’s relationship with Speaker of the House Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is often seen as contentious, at best. But King said he and Hughes are on good terms.
"His door is always open to me, and he’s been very good about talking with me when I have an issue," King said. "We disagree about things. But that hasn’t gotten in the way of our working relationship. He and I like each other."
Running for reelection
King has often expressed frustration with partisanship in the Legislature, and one can imagine if that partisanship continues to grow King might decide enough is enough and walk away. But in fact, King said, the opposite is true, and he does intend to run for reelection in November.
"That’s just not the way I’m set up. That’s not the way I think," he said. "Partisanship actually increases my desire to continue serving. If things get worse in terms of partisanship, I see it as a challenge I am well-suited to adapt to and something I can bring my skills to deal with."
King said his experience as an attorney has given him a lot of experience in working constructively with people on the other side of an argument.
"Part of this comes from my law practice," he said. "You realize there is going to be an opposing lawyer in every case but it doesn’t have to be personal. I have wonderful relationships with defense attorneys. Some of them are my best friends. And again, while Speaker Hughes and I disagree, it never prevents me from walking into his office and talking about what is going on in his life or mine."
Serving in the Legislature is an "extraordinarily time-consuming job," King said, but he hopes to keep doing it.
"I’ve enjoyed my time as minority leader, and caucus willing I will continue to do that," he said. "Even if I’m not in a leadership position I would like to continue representing the people. I think it isn’t until you’ve served a couple of terms that you really know what is happening, not until your third term that you really have the confidence to get things done.
"In many ways, I feel like I’m just hitting my stride."
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