Truth Checker: Doug Owens Cost Each Utah Family $3,000 – False!

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CLAIM

On October 19, the Utah Republican Party sent out an email to supporters urging them to hold Doug Owens accountable for a “complete disregard for your tax dollars” and to vote for Mia Love. The basis for this ask was based on a claim that “Doug Owens cost each Utah family $3,000, because of his lawsuit to block Legacy Highway.” We were asked to evaluate the truth of that claim.

ANALYSIS

On July 7, 2016, the Utah Republican Party sent out a similar email blasting Doug Owens for the part he played in this lawsuit. In that email, the Utah GOP claimed that “Doug’s lawsuit delayed construction of Legacy Highway for years, costing taxpayers over $250 million. That’s more than $500 per family.”

Doug Owens was in fact involved with a lawsuit to block construction of the Legacy Parkway as an attorney representing Utahns for Better Transportation. This lawsuit, arguing that the highway project should be replaced with a train, delayed the project for five years until reaching a settlement that allowed the highway to be completed with stipulations on speed, environmental protection, and a future rail project. During this time, the cost of completing the Legacy Parkway project did increase by about $250 million, starting with an initial budget of $451 million and ending at $685 million.

If you take the increased budget, and divide it by $500 per family, that leaves about 500,000 families. Although exact census data on the number of family households in Utah is not available for this time, 500,000 family households is a reasonable estimate based on the percentages available from both the 2000 and 2010 census data (if growth and ratios stayed consistent, there would have been about 481,587 family households in Utah during 2005). Therefore, the truth lies with the first email sent out by the Utah GOP, and the most recent email sent on October 19 exaggerates the amount of money the lawsuit and settlement cost the average Utah family.

Up for debate is the question of whether Doug Owens himself caused these extra costs. As an attorney, he was responsible for the zealous representation of his client, and any blame would be upon the client for bringing the suit. On the other hand, Owens did voluntarily choose to enter into this representation. Additionally, at the beginning of the legal process, a panel of judges found that much of the financial harm that the state would face was “self-inflicted” because the state chose to proceed with the Legacy Parkway knowing that there were several court cases challenging the approval of the project. However, supporters of the Parkway point out that the project had been approved by all federal agencies and believed that it would be upheld under judicial review. Because these argument stand mostly upon opinion over who shoulders the blame for the years of litigation, we will not make a determination on this part of the claim.

CONCLUSION

The Utah Republican Party claimed that Doug Owens cost each Utah family $3,000 owing to his role in the lawsuits seeking to block the Legacy Parkway project. Owens was an attorney in the lawsuit and can thus arguably be attributed to the cost overruns resulting from the litigation, although the State was responsible for self-inflicting most of the financial loss. However, the price per family was closer to $500 per Utah family, not an exaggerated $3,000 per family. Therefore, we find this claim to be false.

Truth Checker: Rep. Eliason “Opposed Medicaid Expansion” – Mostly True

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CLAIM

On a recent mailer, Nikki Cunard, the democratic candidate running for Utah House District 45, claimed that her opponent, Rep. Steve Eliason (R), “[o]pposed Medicaid expansion and other proven steps to ensure children have access to insurance.” We were asked to determine the truth of the beginning of that claim, whether Rep. Eliason had opposed Medicaid expansion.

ANALYSIS

When looking at the history of Medicaid expansion (or rather, lack of expansion) in Utah, there are three major pieces of legislation that politicians refer to — Healthy Utah, Utah Access Plus, and this year’s H.B. 437. We examined Rep. Eliason’s record with each of these initiatives in order to determine the veracity of this claim.

S.B. 164 of 2015, otherwise known as Governor Herbert’s Healthy Utah Plan, was an attempt to work around the requirements of the Affordable Care Act but nevertheless would have fully expanded Medicaid in Utah. After passing the Senate by a vote of 17-11, it went to the House Business and Labor Committee where it failed a motion to recommend by a vote of 4-9. On March 5, a motion was made on the floor of the House to “resurrect” S.B. 164 and bring it out of the Rules Committee for a vote by all the members of the House. Four Republicans in the House joined the House Democrats to vote for the motion; however, it was not enough to pump life back into the Healthy Utah Plan. Rep. Eliason was one of those who voted against that motion. (See p. 1569 of the House Journal)

Utah Access Plus was the plan brought forward by Governor Herbert later in 2015 after the defeat of his Healthy Utah Plan. Rather than waiting to bring the proposal through the normal legislative process during the 2016 Session, House Republicans brought up Utah Access Plus in a closed caucus meeting for a vote to determine whether Republicans would support the plan. After the meeting, it was revealed that the plan was defeated by a vote of 57-7. About half of those present revealed how they voted during the caucus meeting in response to inquiries from KUTV, however, Rep. Eliason did not.

H.B. 437, was originally touted by House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan as an attempt to expand Medicaid. However, when it was finally introduced late in the 2016 Legislative Session, it was unveiled to be only a small extension of already existing Medicaid programs, designed to cover only 16,000 (now 10,000) individuals within narrowly defined categories of mental illness, homelessness, or incarceration. Because of this, the measure was only able to qualify for the traditional 70/30 federal match, rather than the 90/10 federal match under the ACA’s provisions covering full Medicaid expansion up to 138% of the federal poverty level. Therefore, even though Rep. Eliason was a co-sponsor of this legislation, this cannot be considered as supporting Medicaid “expansion.”

We were unable to find any other votes, reports, materials, or other sources that would indicate either opposition to or support for expanding Medicaid.

CONCLUSION

Nikki Cunard claimed that Rep. Steve Eliason “opposed Medicaid expansion.”  Although he cosponsored and voted in favor of Dunnigan’s H.B. 437, this was a mere extension of existing Medicaid and thus not support for what most consider to be “Medicaid expansion.” However, because he joined most other Republicans in the House to block the vote on Healthy Utah, he did oppose expanding Medicaid. If he had supported expanding Medicaid, he would have voted on the motion at that time, as it was the last possible opportunity to pass that bill during the 2015 Session.

Without having the additional information revealing how Rep. Eliason voted during the closed Republican caucus, we determine this claim is “Mostly True.”