Herbert plans to detail deal over Medicaid expansion with lawmakers next month

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SALT LAKE CITY — Next month, Gov. Gary Herbert will present the details of his alternative Medicaid plan to skeptical members of Utah's Republican-controlled Legislature.

After consulting with legislative leaders this week, Herbert said Thursday that he's decided to roll out the plan in December to lawmakers on a health committee meeting shortly before the full Legislature returns for business in 2015.

The GOP-controlled state House, resistant to any entanglements with the federal government, wouldn't consider the rough outlines of Herbert's plan earlier this year.

But newly-elected House Republican leaders seem more cooperative, Herbert said at his monthly news conference on KUED Thursday.

"I think there's always the opportunity to have new eyes, new perspective," he said.

Herbert said something has to be done to help low-income residents falling into a health coverage gap, and he's committed to getting a deal before the legislative session ends in March.

Thousands of poor Utah adults are not currently eligible for Medicaid, and because of a flaw in the federal health care law, they're also ineligible for tax credits to pay for private insurance offered on the federal health care website.

To address those gaps, the federal government has offered to pick up most of the cost if states expand their Medicaid programs.

Herbert instead has proposed using federal money to help enroll 110,000 people on private health plans.

After negotiating for months, the governor in October reached a tentative deal with the Obama administration over his plan. All but a few details are set and a written agreement will be drawn up soon, the governor said Thursday.

Both the federal government and Utah's Legislature need to sign off on a plan, but there's no deadline for approval.

In addition to Medicaid, here are some highlights of Herbert's last regularly scheduled news conference of 2014:

LIQUOR LAWS:

When lawmakers return in January, Herbert said he expects they'll once again discuss changes to Utah's liquor laws.

Last year, lawmakers killed a proposal to strike one of the state's more unusual regulations, which requires some restaurants to mix and pour alcoholic drinks behind barriers or in separate rooms. Opponent of the so-called "Zion curtains" argue the barriers are weird and harm tourism and the state economy. Others have pushed to revise laws requiring food to be purchased with any alcohol in restaurants.

Herbert said Thursday that with tourism growing and Utah's economy improving, he thinks the alcohol laws work, but he's willing to hear arguments otherwise.

SAGE GROUSE:

Federal officials on Wednesday granted protection to the Gunnison sage grouse, a move that could restrict oil and gas drilling and other land use on the bird's habitat in Utah.

Herbert on Thursday said he thinks the groups pushing to protect the waterfowl are more concerned with stopping energy extraction on public land, including "some extreme environmentalists."

"They're just using it as a tool and I don't think they really do care about the sage grouse," Herbert said.

About 5,000 Gunnison sage grouse are in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. They're a relative of the greater sage grouse, which is part of a separate and larger debate over federal protection across 11 Western states.

AIR QUALITY:

With winter returning smoggy air in northern Utah, Herbert on Thursday said residents need to pay attention to their driving habits and how they affect pollution. Utah has an average of 18 bad air quality days each year, with the heaviest pollution in winter as cold air traps smog in northern Utah's bowl-shaped valleys.

Herbert said cleaner burning cars are improving air quality but tailpipes still account for about 50 percent of Utah's pollution. The governor said if Utah isn't able to improve air quality over time, it will harm resident health and economic growth in the state.

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