SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert and three of the candidates vying to take his place offered their views Thursday on the top priorities Utah voters identified in a survey by the Utah Foundation.
Topping the 2016 Utah Priorities Project survey was health care, and that was the issue that sparked the most friction between Herbert, Republican Jonathan Johnson, and Democrats Mike Weinholtz and Vaughn Cook.
"Sometimes you take what you can get in the political arena where you get the votes that will pass, and it may not be perfect, but maybe is better than doing nothing," Herbert said.
Last year, lawmakers rejected the governor's Healthy Utah plan for using the hundreds of millions of dollars available for Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama's health care law to cover all eligible Utahns.
Herbert said the 2016 Legislature's plan extending traditional Medicaid to 16,000 of the neediest Utahns is "incremental, but we'll be able to look at the data, build upon that and hopefully expand to more people as we're able to afford it."
Johnson, chairman of Overstock.com, said "perfect should not be the enemy of the good, but neither should we be dictated to by the federal government" when it comes to health care.
He said last year's plan relied "on federal dollars and expanding it the way the federal government wanted us to expand it. We should be working to expand it on our own terms."
Johnson said the state should be looking for a way to get back the money Utahns have paid in taxes associated with the Affordable Care Act "without taking uncapped, unknown liabilities on our own taxpayers."
Weinholtz, former CEO of CHG Healthcare Services, compared the plan approved by the Legislature to "a death panel" because it leaves out 90,000 Utahns who would qualify for subsidized care under full Medicaid expansion.
"You 90,000 people who have just the same amount of need, you're going to have to continue to suffer and even die," he said. "We need to expand Medicaid fully. That's what Utah values are. We take care of our people."
The Legislature's plan, Weinholtz said, is "an insult to all Utahns." He said the plan covered fewer Utahns at a greater cost and was not only "morally bankrupt but it was fiscally irresponsible."
Cook, an Oriental medical doctor who uses needles, nutraceuticals, homeopathic remedies and herbs to treat patients, also said he's in favor of full Medicaid expansion.
"I think we should stop bickering about Obamacare and being embarrassed to think that we're going to take advantage of it. I think we should take advantage of it," Cook said.
With the economy in good shape, he said, "it's times like these when we should turn our attention to people who are less fortunate than we are, people in the state who may be underemployed" and can't afford health insurance premiums.
There was also debate among the candidates over how to improve air quality, second on the list of top issues for voters in 2016.
Johnson said the state needs a governor "who takes the lead on this, and not someone who dillydallies on the issues." He said Utah needs to be aggressive about forcing oil refineries to covert to cleaner Tier 3 fuels.
Herbert said "platitudes, political posturing" won't improve air quality, and the state "is doing something. We're not sitting around twiddling our thumbs." Utah, the governor said, can't have a healthy business environment without clean air.
Weinholtz said the state is "very proud of the fact we're ranked No. 1 for business in the country, but where has that gotten us?" he asked, noting that limited regulations that businesses favor have led to the "dirtiest air in America."
Cook said Utah's major polluters are "me and it's you and it's our neighbors." He called for a campaign similar to the effort to get Utahns to wear seat belts to educate Utahns about what they can do to improve air quality.
The event was the first time the four had shared a stage, although Herbert and Johnson, his chief challenger for the GOP nomination, have attended the same Republican Party events.
Johnson has repeatedly called for debates with the governor. Herbert said during his monthly KUED news conference it was "yet to be determined" whether he would debate before the state GOP convention on April 23.
The governor said, however, he expects to debate Johnson before the June 28 primary election.