- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - House Speaker Becky Lockhart kicked off the 2014 legislative session Monday by criticizing Gov. Gary Herbert, saying the state needs “energy in the executive, not an inaction figure.”

In her opening remarks on the floor of the House, the Provo Republican asked lawmakers to encourage Herbert “to lead and not just follow” and to “be innovative and not just reactive.”

Lockhart, who has said she is not running for re-election this year, declined Monday afternoon to say whether she plans to challenge Herbert, her fellow Republican, by running for governor in 2016.

For his part, Herbert appeared to acknowledge that possibility in a statement Monday afternoon, saying he hopes “we can all set aside politics and political ambition and focus on the work of the people of Utah.”

Lockhart’s remarks prompted Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, a Sandy Republican, to say, “That’s laying down the gauntlet, isn’t it?”

Lockhart appeared to walk back some of her comments later, saying her remarks were meant to encourage everyone to improve this year.

“I encouraged him as I encouraged myself, and I encouraged everybody to do better,” she said during a news conference.

Lockhart paired her comments about the governor with criticism of the federal health overhaul and Medicaid expansion.

Under the federal health care law, states have the option of expanding eligibility for Medicaid, the state-federal program for low-income people.

If states expand the program to include people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, the federal government has offered to pick up the full cost through 2016 and 90 percent after that.

Because of a gap in the health care law, there are about 60,000 Utah residents who are currently not covered by Medicaid or eligible for federal subsidies to pay for private insurance.

Herbert announced last week that Utah would pursue some form of Medicaid expansion but postponed announcing further details. A task force studying the issue has focused on options involving a partial expansion, among other paths.

Lockhart on Monday called the Medicaid offer a trap. “In my opinion, accepting the federal money should not be an option for Utah,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, a Republican from Monroe, said he expects lawmakers will work with the governor’s office to find a system that works for Utah. He said Republicans in the Senate appear to be on board with the governor’s proposal, but they want to be sure that Utah can afford whatever it chooses.

“There’s so much uncertainty with the federal government,” he said.

Sen. Gene Davis, a Salt Lake City Democrat and the Senate Minority Leader, said the state will have to set aside some money for management costs. “However, when you take that with the thousands of lives that would then have that opportunity to be covered, and the health care cost savings in our economy, could be substantial,” he said.

He and other Democratic lawmakers support expanding the program.

Lawmakers on Monday also discussed possible changes to the gas tax, making education a priority and tackling air quality.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is planning more than a dozen bills to address Utah’s smog, and thousands of protesters descended on the Capitol over the weekend to demand action from state officials.

Sen. Stuart Adams, a Layton Republican, said he will make air quality a priority, but he said individual efforts were key to improvements.

“We need to do a better job in both our habits and the type of vehicles we drive,” Adams said Monday. “Everyone needs to own this.”

Beyond those issues, legislators are also expected to address gay marriage, tobacco use and campaign laws, in addition to issues such as alcohol and guns.

Before they wrap up March 13, the Republican-controlled Legislature will churn through about 500 bills that are already in the works, in addition to passing a balanced budget.

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