The 2014 Utah Legislative Session: Rebecca Lockhart’s quest for power

The governor should just say it.

Utah House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart wants his job – real bad.

Polite as he always is, Gov. Gary Herbert has been unwilling to suggest that Lockhart is gunning for his seat on the Capitol’s west side. But her biggest actions this past legislative session have hardly been genteel (certainly not as courteous as she was while speaking to Utah State University students last year). They have spoken louder than any words that could have been said.

“We need energy, not an inaction figure, in the governor’s office,” Lockhart said on opening day. “Let us all encourage the governor to lead and not just follow, to be innovative and not just reactive.”

Yet, she was critical of Gov. Herbert’s yearning for action on accepting, through conservative fashion, funding from the federal government for Medicaid expansion. The governor sought a block grant that would enable the state to utilize the money. A bill fulfilling that vision was one Lockhart wasn’t even willing to bring to debate in the House.

“I can’t support, and do not understand, saddling” Utah with an element of Obamacare, she said.

The federal government would have paid 100 percent of Medicaid expansion in the first three years, which had largely already been paid for by Utah taxpayers. Now, that money may not be used to help the state whatsoever.

For all her cries against even a semblance of additional spending, the Beehive State’s newest drama queen sought $200 to $300 million for an education technology proposal. But the Legislature knew it was too expensive, among other glaring problems. Lockhart knew it, too, given that lawmakers were not willing to accept taxpayer money for the taking for Medicaid. The Senate offered no more than $26 million for Lockhart’s pet project, and Gov. Herbert scolded Lockhart (only) for clashing with previously-established spending priorities, saying it resulted in a “lack of effort” to put together a responsible budget. He said from the beginning that he would veto a bill he described as “wrong-headed” and without substance. Senate Pres. Wayne Niederhauser said it had no “meat.”

(Even when Lockhart dropped her request to as low as $25 million annually, the Legislature still was more ready to accept full Medicaid expansion, along with a variety of tax increases. Lockhart knew that they offered no more than “change out of couch cushions.”)

But still, impossible and irrational as it was, Lockhart’s phantom “big gear” might be a great campaign carrot stick. In seeking such rhetoric candy. she was following the mold of former House Speaker Marty Stephens, whose APPLE initiative was aimed at (somehow) combining thousands of acres of federal and state lands to reap upwards of billions of dollars for public schools. Stephens used the dreamy initiative to drive his failed campaign forgovernor in 2004.

This all shouldn’t be of any surprise. Paul Rolly wrote after the 2013 session that Lockhart had set her sights higher, with a political action committee as a vehicle for cash and dialogue.

Lockhart has a financial base. She has complete control over the Speaker’s Leadership PAC, which routinely has a balance of tens of thousands of dollars. At the end of 2012, she had a balance of a $50,000, and may use that fund in her gubernatorial campaign.

She invited lobbyists to bring their clients to lunch with her, where they could consider contributing to the PAC. Ryan Sims, the man who extended the invitations, assisted in several campaigns for Utah County Republicans, and was also a former intern to Sen. Curt Bramble, a close political ally of Lockhart.

The event was meant to be a means to gauge the level of support she might have. That must have gone well, given how she charged ahead on Capitol Hill.

Of course, those invitations came only after she publicly stated that she would not seek a third term as speaker in 2014. Politically, her retirement is a smart move. Her votes in the next two legislatures may have been seen as posturing for a race for Utah’s chief executive office.

That very impression hampered Stephens when he vied for the same office as Speaker in 2004.

Gov. Herbert has played the game a little, playing some defense (“I’m conservative in principle… Some say I’m the most conservative governor we’ve had since Brigham Young”) and offense (inversely saying he is an “action figure”) while being unwilling to say exactly what type of power Lockhart is seeking. But he has acknowledged that Lockhart is on a path that has been nothing but selfish: “I hope we can all set aside politics and political ambition and focus on the work of the people of Utah.”

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