PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Dan Liljenquist 2011 HONOREE

Senator, State of Utah

Shortly after Dan Liljenquist was elected to the Utah Senate in 2008, he was named chair of the Senate’s Retirement Committee, a backwater body that met infrequently and didn’t take on major issues. But when the state retirement fund lost nearly a quarter of its value in the market downturn, Liljenquist changed that.

To pay for the losses, Utah would have to commit about 10 percent of its general fund revenues for 25 years. Liljenquist was determined to keep taxpayers from suffering if the market tanked again. “I just geeked out on the data,” says Liljenquist, who began presenting the numbers to every stakeholder who would listen (and some who didn’t really want to). He ultimately became the architect of Utah’s pension reform, which closes the existing system to new workers and instead offers them a defined-contribution plan in which the state contributes 10 percent of a worker’s salary -- and no more. The move wasn’t popular -- thousands of state employees protested it -- but it eventually passed, and it removes the possibility of the retirement fund ever bankrupting the state in the future. The Wall Street Journal has called it a model other states should replicate.

Liljenquist then set his sights on Medicaid. Utah is on pace to see Medicaid eat up 36 percent of the general fund by 2020. Liljenquist created a plan -- which passed by huge margins -- to switch from traditional fee-for-service payments to a managed-care approach. The idea, which is gaining traction in other states too, is that medical professionals should be financially rewarded for positive outcomes, not for racking up costly tests and treatments. The plan tries to slow Medicaid growth by limiting increases in per-member spending to the rate of general fund growth. It also includes small -- though controversial -- increases in Medicaid co-pays, to give patients more of an incentive for efficient care. The changes, which are awaiting approval from the federal government, would save Utah an estimated $770 million in the first seven years.

Liljenquist’s success in confronting such serious issues has led to inevitable rumors about a run for higher office, including a possible Republican primary challenge to longtime U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch. Liljenquist could be a formidable opponent. “He has a very compelling personal story,” says Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, referring to a plane crash Liljenquist survived, shortly before his election, that killed 11 of 14 passengers. “But also he has this reputation for really being able to dig in on the details of complicated problems. It would be a sad thing if the Legislature were to lose his talent.”

— Ryan Holeywell
Photo by M Bryan Thompson

Prior to submitting his Medicaid plan, Sen. Liljenquist summed up the bill's reforms in less than a minute in this clip.