Worried about the financial impact of Prop. 3, Utah lawmakers are planning to modify it

Posted at 5:03 PM, Jan 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-16 23:50:42-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- Voters approved Proposition 3, enacting a sales tax hike to provide coverage for tens of thousands of Utah's poorest.

But lawmakers fear the money raised from that tax hike is not enough to cover ballooning costs, so a bill will be introduced on Thursday in the Utah State Legislature to modify the ballot initiative.

"We’re not repealing it. We’re amending portions of it," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden. "We are going to expand it so that everyone is going to have health coverage available to them."

Prop. 3 passed in November with 53% of the vote, enacting a .15% sales tax hike (generating about $90 million). Utah would also get a match from the federal government of about $800 million. But Sen. Christensen said it would not be enough to cover the gap the initiative also called for. The Utah State Legislature fears it could be a budget buster.

"Four years from now, we should be between $40 and $60 million in the hole," he said. "That has to come from some place, and really the only place that can come out of is public education."

Sen. Christensen said the bill he was co-sponsoring with Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, would impose enrollment caps and cover up to 100 percent of poverty level.

"There’s still available through the exchange with subsidies between 100 and 138 percent," he said.

Sen. Christensen also told FOX 13 they would be seeking a 90/10 split with the federal government, something the Trump administration would have to sign off on (and has yet to do with previous requests). He also intended to have a work requirement similar to what exists now with food stamp benefits.

The bill has raised concerns among Prop. 3 supporters, who saw what the legislature did to the medical cannabis ballot initiative that voters overwhelmingly approved. The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, which heavily backed Prop. 3 by urging its members to call and knock on doors in support of Medicaid expansion, indicated its displeasure with lawmakers.

"We are disappointed to see legislators continue their efforts to deny individuals access to health care coverage against the clear will of the people. Prop. 3 means people will have health coverage by April," said Jean Hill, the director of the Diocese's Office of Life, Justice and Peace. "Efforts to extend their already years long wait further are unconscionable. Expanding Medicaid will save lives. It is time to do the right thing for the thousands of Utahns in the coverage gap."

Matt Slonaker, the executive director of the Utah Health Policy Project, said he has been trying to meet with lawmakers about the bill.

"We want to know what’s in it," he said.

Slonaker said Utahns are planning to sign up in April, when coverage begins under Prop. 3. Any delay would be problematic, he said.

"If the legislation is again making technical fixes, doing some things the legislature thinks is prudent to make the plan work then I think there’s no problem at all. I don’t think the public has anything to rally about," he said. "But if this is repealing and replacing... I think there will be a public reaction that’s significant."

Sen. Christensen insisted the legislation was doing what voters wanted, while dealing with budget realities. Asked what he would say to voters who think this isn't what they voted for, he told FOX 13: "I say you voted for something that was not well put together. It was not adequate."