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



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.


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.


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.”

Review: House District 34 Debate

Review: House District 34 Debate

To be frank, I remember very little of Thursday’s House District 34 debate between Republican Mr. Macade Jensen and Democrat Dr. Karen Kwan. Not because it wasn’t an interesting debate; it was. If you don’t believe me, listen KCPW’s recording, watch ABU’s stream, or read through ABU’s twitter feed. My legislative haze comes from the fact I was given the incredible opportunity to moderate Thursday’s debate. It was a dream come true, but that meant I spent most of the evening feeling like I was about to pass out. Up until that point, all my debate work was behind the scenes. I researched topics, revised the questions, attended staff meetings, took a lot of notes, and wrote post-debate blogs—none of which is any easier and all of which is more time consuming but doesn’t have the same effect on your nerves.

Moderating could be the final round of the multi-tasking Olympics. You have a stack of housekeeping notes, more questions than you can ask, and a stop watch. Your job is to give the intro, clarify—and remember—the debate format, follow response order procedures, ask questions—making sure you get to the same number of each candidate’s requested topic areas—manage the audience, conclude the debate, and thank all the right people. And you need to do all of it in 58 minutes and 30 seconds to make it a perfect hour of radio. It’s safe to say, it was a lot harder than Anderson Cooper makes it look.

The portions of the debate I recall best is the discussion of party politics and the Republican supermajority. The candidates fundamentally disagreed on the effectiveness of the current Republican supermajority and transparency in the Utah legislature. Dr. Kwan asserted that too much happened behind caucus doors, meaning little was accomplished and most of that was without transparency. Mr. Jensen responded by stating that the caucus doors only closed twice in the last legislative session and that being a member of the supermajority would amplify his voice in the House, allowing him to accomplish more as a representative than she.

Whether one likes it or not, Gallup declared Utah one of the two most Republican states in the nation in 2015. Gallup’s not wrong because Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1980, the state has been run by a Republican trifecta—the combination of a Republican governor, house majority, and senate majority—since 1992, currently the longest streak in the country. As of this month, Republicans hold 63 of the 75 Utah State House seats and 23 of the 29 Utah State Senate seats. And (valid, nationally recognized) accusations of gerrymandering aside, there are a little over 1.3 million active registered voters in the state of Utah—according to—and as of October 3, 647,188 of them are Republicans, 145,145 are Democrats, 491,180 are unaffiliated and around 25,000 belong to other parties. Assuming the independent voters are not exclusively Democratic, Republicans far outweigh Democrats in the state in terms of active registered voters, mirroring legislative proportions fairly closely. Does that mean the Republican legislators and state leaders hold the same values and vote on legislation exactly as their Republican constituents would? Absolutely not. Does this mean Democrats and third-party candidates shouldn’t challenge Republicans in any and every election? Absolutely not. If I didn’t think public discourse, political dialogue, and competing ideas were essential to a healthy democracy, I wouldn’t be involved in this debate series.

All this data is not to make the argument that Utah’s state legislature perfectly reflects the will of the citizens or that it should stay as heavily partisan as it is—I cannot see myself ever making that argument. I am (perhaps circuitously) setting up the most unique moment of the House District 34 debate. The last question I asked the candidates was why a voter who is undecided or of the opposite party should vote for them, rather than their opponent. Dr. Kwan affirmed her belief in bipartisanship and the inclusion of diverse voices, and that her goal is to serve constituents, not be the voice of a single party. That is exactly the type of appeal to independent, small party, and moderate Republican voters she needs to make, considering her comparatively small base. Mr. Jensen, on the other hand, quoted Dr. Kwan. He claimed she once called him a “Democrat in Secret.” I can only assume she did so with the above data in mind, thinking accusations of a leftward lean would alienate him from strong Republican and conservative voters on which his election may depend. Indeed, the statement may have served as a kill shot in a Republican primary. However, Republican voters choosing between a centrist Republican and a self-identifying Democrat will probably still choose the Republican, moderate or not. The moderation may even help. What’s more, centrist Democrats may take Dr. Kwan at her word that Mr. Jensen is secretly a Democrat and choose to vote for the Democrat most likely (remember all that data) to be elected and able to work with the legislative supermajority in Utah’s Republican trifecta.

Of course, I won’t rule out the possibility that as a student of rhetoric and political communication, I’m reading too far into and attributing too much significance to one answer to a relatively simple question. Like I said, I spent most of the night trying not to freak out or fall over. Listen to the debate and decide for yourself. As a well-informed voter on election day, you’ll be glad you did.

Review: House District 49 Debate

Review: House District 49 Debate

The second debate in the ABU Education Fund and John R. Park Debate Society co-sponsored legislative debate series (say that five times fast) was between Republican Robert Spendlove and Democrat Zach Robinson. Representative Spendlove is the incumbent for the House District 49 seat, but that doesn’t guarantee a smooth ride back into office. This year’s race is the highly anticipated sequel to the original 2014 election when these same two candidates ran against one another for the seat Representative Spendlove eventually won. Despite losing by an almost 14-point margin, Zach Robinson is back for round two. It can only be billed as the friendliest grudge match in Utah.

Last night’s debate was evenly matched, giving both candidates a chance to shine. However, that does not mean they were without their faults. Constituents may feel they already know these men and where they stand, yet the room was anything but empty. Whether they were there for the issues or the show is anyone’s guess; a child did throw up in the back row so the night was not without spectacle. But a discussion and dissection of Spendlove and Robinson’s performances is useful to show a changing citizenry how these men may have evolved. This race is a sequel and not a tired remake after all.

Robinson opened the debate with an introduction in which he framed himself as a humble civil servant. He used the first third of his speech to thank, well, everybody—for attending, for organizing, for supporting him, even for running against him. From there, he emphasized his commitment to community and family, saying he was there “not only as a candidate, but as a family man” and former fire fighter. Robinson explained that as a first-responder he “got to help everybody.” His roles as a father and fire-fighter were emphasized throughout the debate, particularly in his categorization of certain debate topics as “collaborative” or “people” issues. Representative Spendlove portrayed himself as an experienced and effective politician who is always open to dialogue, going so far as to declare his “only wish is that there were more of these debates going on,” and lamenting that so many Utah races go uncontested. He cited the two committees to which he was appointed and continued the motif in several of his question responses by citing specific legislation he had sponsored, drafted, or for which he had voted. His closing remarks contained a fairly impressive laundry list of awards and endorsements. Robinson was the charming outsider who cares and Spendlove was the man to “face [difficult issues] head on.” Or they were at first.

Despite thanking Representative Spendlove in his opening remarks, Robinson made every effort to highlight the areas in which he and the Representative disagreed. “I think we probably differ” could be his catchphrase. Robinson repeatedly brought up regulation, or the “r word” as he called it, and every time he did it was not without mention of how little Utahns like the “r word.” The first time it was charming, even funny, but the broken record feeling set in and it began to feel like he was combating his constituents and not his opponent. Representative Spendlove has a similar problem. He billed himself as a man willing to tackle the hard issues and get things done, but his favorite tune was the “failure of the federal government” and he played it on loop. Regardless of whether one believes Utah’s problems are the fault of Washington (and I leave that up to you to decide), placing blame is not a solution. But you know what both candidates think is the solution, to everything? Education. Now I’m not knocking a good education. I had one and I came back for more and I know just how much it’s worth, but I disagree with both candidates that handing citizens information about issues will miraculously fix all the state’s problems. I’m sorry Representative Spendlove, but education won’t fix our air quality issues, cutting pollution might. And I apologize Mr. Robinson, but education isn’t the instant cure for domestic violence related homelessness; increased support for women’s shelters could help.

This is not to say that both candidates did not contribute meaningful analysis to the issues currently facing the state; they did and I would highly recommend listening to their excellent debate, which was broadcast by the ABU Education Fund on Facebook and their website, and will be aired on the radio by KCPW next week. These are two engaged and compassionate candidates. I hope that listening carefully and critiquing elements of their platforms and public presentations will push them to be even better. Robinson thinks of his campaign is a “job interview” and Representative Spendlove posited that “elections are about decision.” They’re right. Be sure that you, as a citizen and a voter, are asking the right questions to make the best decisions. In the wise (and highly practical) words of Mr. Robinson, “ballots went out yesterday. Don’t forget to sign the back.”

2014 Senate District 4 Debate Recording

2014 Senate District 4 Debate Recording

Democrat Jani Iwamoto and Republican Sabrina Petersen debate on October 7, 2014 at Holladay City Hall’s Big Cottonwood Room. Iwamoto and Petersen are vying for the Senate District 4 seat being vacated by State Senator Pat Jones (D). The event was sponsored by ABU Education Fund, an affiliate of Alliance for a Better Utah, the University of Utah’s John R. Park Debate Society and KCPW.


This recording was originally posted by KCPW on October 9, 2014. You can see the original post here.

Who is showing your legislator the love this Valentine’s Day?

Salt Lake City — How much love is your legislator getting? The non-partisan ABU Education Fund launched Version 2.0 of its “Follow-the-Money” disclosure database today to help Utahns answer that question this Valentine’s Day.

The improved campaign disclosure website, which can be found at, now features a streamlined search function, the latest statewide candidate filings, and a new design that makes viewing and researching on smartphones much easier. And it should make holding Utah’s elected officials accountable even easier.

“Utah political financial disclosure has always been available on the Lt. Governor’s website,” said Joshua Kanter, executive director of the ABU Education Fund. “But you have to know what you are looking for, wade through dozens of different reports, and there is no capacity to search across donors, years and candidates. Our database will save people time and the typical frustration that comes with searching through the individual disclosures and trying to compile those results.”

But it is important to note that the data is only as good as the as the campaign finance laws currently in place in Utah, said Kanter. In the aftermath of the John Swallow scandal, several legislators have opened bill files that would place limits on campaign contributions and would improve disclosure requirements.

“Campaign finance laws, despite their overwhelming support by most ethics groups and voters, continue to face an uphill battle in Utah, one of only four states without campaign contribution limits,” said Kanter. “This database might not impact the passage of those laws, but it will make it easier for insiders and the general public alike to follow the money.”

The new database features a single search function in place of the multiple search options that previously made the database more complicated to search. Users now have the ability to search across multiple tables, contributions and expenditures with a single search term. And, with smartphone optimization, users can search for information just about anywhere they are.

“More and more people are turning to their smartphones for information about their elected leaders,” said Pat Thompson, the website’s designer. “Journalists and activists who might not have access to a laptop during committee meetings and interviews will find the improved smartphone functioning especially useful.”


Joshua Kanter
Executive Director, ABU Education Fund
435-287-4228 |