Emails to Summit County’s legislators show heated debate over Medicaid expansion rollback
March 16, 2019
The Utah Legislature's 2019 session wrapped up on Thursday after 45 days where debate over significant policy overhauls reached a fever pitch early and, seemingly, never died down. From the start, Summit County's GOP representatives were at the center of a firestorm when Republican state Sen. Allen Christensen introduced a bill to significantly alter the state's Medicaid expansion plan that voters approved in November.
While a decisive majority of Summit County voters said "yes" to Proposition 3, a full Medicaid expansion proposal that would have increased the state sales tax and made millions in federal dollars available, all but one of their state legislators (House minority leader Rep. Brian King, a Salt Lake Democrat representing Summit Park and parts of Pinebrook) supported Christensen's successful push to scale back the plan. The altered plan, which removes eligibility for thousands of Utahns and implements work requirements for coverage, must be approved by the Trump administration before it can go into effect. Supporters said the changes were necessary to keep Medicaid expansion fiscally solvent.
Via an open records request, The Park Record obtained hundreds of emails centered on Medicaid expansion sent to and from Summit County's representatives at the Capitol from Jan. 27 through Feb. 13, the beginning of the session to one day after the bill to scale back Proposition 3 passed. The emails provided show a widespread dissatisfaction among voters contacting Summit County's lawmaker."A democracy ceases to be democratic if its leaders enact legislation that does not represent the will of the people," one emailer residing in Salt Lake City wrote to Christensen in opposition to the bill on Jan. 28. "That's an abuse of power. That's corruption."
Christensen differed on that definition.
"Please do your homework," he wrote in response. "We are not a democracy. We are a constitutional republic that means we elect representatives."
Another emailer, a constituent from Ogden, urged the senator he helped put into office to reconsider his proposal.
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"The people voted to pass Proposition 3," the constituent wrote. "I voted yes on Prop 3. I also voted for you."
While Christensen's inbox was largely filled with opposing opinions, one Ogden constituent wrote to thank him for introducing the legislation and for "setting some limits on the Medicaid expansion."
"Thank you for your comments," Christensen wrote in response. "I could use a lot more like them."
Other exchanges turned tense.
"Please reconsider your actions regarding the Medicaid expansion, it literally is a matter of life and death for so many of us," one emailer wrote on Feb. 11 in an email with the subject line "What would Jesus do?"
Several messages later in the exchange, Christensen gave his thoughts on that opening question: that Jesus was decidedly not socialist.
"Jesus would do as he always did and advise people take care of the poor but he never ever advocated that money be taken from some people and given to others," he wrote.
Though Heber Rep. Tim Quinn, Park City's representative in the House, took a back seat in the debate, he voted in support of Christensen's proposal. One constituent had a suggestion: Make up for the money spent on Medicaid expansion by privatizing liquor sales.
"Right now it appears that you are NOT representing the stated desires of your constituents," wrote Robert Chamberlain, who is the vice chair of the Summit County Republican Party, in an email to Quinn from an address associated with a firm he runs in Park City. "When our elected officials cease being puppets for an unelected religious lobbying group and start becoming Republicans we have the opportunity to triple state revenue from alcohol sales." Chamberlain clarified to The Park Record that he was speaking as a private citizen, rather than on behalf of the Summit County GOP.
Quinn responded that he believed an amended version of Christensen's proposal was adequate in staying true to the spirit of Proposition 3.
"The public, when drafting a proposition, has no requirement to pay for things much less to balance a budget," Quinn wrote. "On this issue, we did what prop 3 asked with some caps to prevent cost over runs."
Meaghan Miller, a Park City Democrat who challenged Quinn in his reelection bid in 2018, also appeared in the representative's inbox.
"Prop 3 passed Wasatch County by 6,089 votes — I received 4,335 which means 1,754 people who voted for you want Medicaid expanded," Miller said. A search of the emails provided to The Park Record did not yield a response from Quinn.
State Sen. Ronald Winterton, a Duchesne Republican who represents Park City, also became a prominent figure in the narrative early on. A freshman senator coming from a position as a Duchesne County commissioner, he was appointed chair of the Senate Health and Human Services committee.
Winterton responded to many of the hundreds of messages received with a form letter explaining his support of the legislation, as did Croydon Rep. Logan Wilde, whose district covers much of eastern Summit County.
"I am committed to finding a solution on how to sustain the voter approved expansion long term in a compassionate and responsible manner that makes sense for all Utahns," Winterton's responses concluded.
Wilde's responses echoed the sentiments of many Republican legislators who supported the bill.
"If you would like these programs to run for a few years and dissolve because they don't have enough funding to maintain the services provided to the citizens. Then leave them alone," Wilde's responses stated. "But I for one am not going to provide a service with a promise to citizens of this state then leave them with nothing in a few years."
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