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Closed-door meeting during Medicaid expansion discussion sparks debate

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Posted at 10:00 PM, Oct 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-21 10:58:49-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- For nearly four hours, House Republicans met behind closed doors last week. When the meeting opened, they had killed a Medicaid expansion bill and started a debate about what took place.

“That's problematic. That's anti-democratic,” said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.

The House Minority Leader was left out of the discussion, as were the 11 other Democrats in the House.

Prior to the meeting Tuesday, House Speaker Greg Hughes announced he would only count Republican votes in a straw poll of the Medicaid proposal.

“If you meet together in a closed caucus with a super majority, you are effectively determining law in a closed caucus without public input,” King said.

When asked last week about the meeting, Hughes defended the decision and pointed the finger at the Senate, as well.

“I'm sure you've asked President Niederhauser why he insists on operating behind closed doors all the time,” Hughes said.

According to Hughes’ office, the meeting was intended to allow the Speaker to gauge support for the proposal, which is why members were polled.

"Our caucus wanted to have a candid, open discussion amongst each other before it got to the point of a public debate,” said Hughes’ Chief of Staff, Greg Hartley.

FOX 13 also reached out to the Senate for comment and received a statement from Chief of Staff Ric Cantrell.

“We never take any binding votes behind closed doors. We can’t. Every official action has to be done in public,” Cantrell said.

However, according to local media attorney Jeff Hunt, any type of vote should be public.

“You can call it a straw poll and you can call it a vote. It’s the same thing,” explained Hunt. “Hands were raised, people knew how many votes there were.”

Under Utah’s Open and Public Meetings Act, there is an exception allowing lawmakers to close a political caucus, but Hunt argues that without limits the law is meaningless.

“Their view of that exception is very expansive. In fact, I think under their view you could close any meeting,” Hunt said. “If you accept this interpretation, it would swallow the entire act.”

While Hughes was open and clear about closing their meeting last week, those left outside of it, like King, believe the argument doesn’t hold up with him or the public.

“He was honest and transparent about that process,” King said. “And I want to be honest and transparent in saying to people, 'Look at the process. It's objectionable.'”​