Governor-elect Bullock releases state budget proposal

Governor-Elect Steve Bullock announces his proposed budget Friday

Governor-elect Steve Bullock announces his proposed budget Friday

Governor Elect Steve Bullock has released his proposed state budget on the eve of the start of the Montana Legislature and his inauguration on Monday. The proposal makes modifications to the final budget submitted by outgoing Governor Brian Schweitzer, including what staff say is about $30 million dollars more in spending.

“Just like budgets that we come up with around the kitchen table, a state’s budget is truly a reflection of the values and the priorities of the people of Montana,” Governor-elect Steve Bullock said Friday after walking into the expansive rotunda of the Capitol Building, flanked by top-staffers handing out thin orange books.

The books contain highlights of the administration’s budget for the next two-year budget cycle. It will serve as a starting point for the State Legislature.

“Healthier Montanans will contribute to a healthy Montana economy,” Bullock said, announcing for the first time through the budget that he will support the optional Medicaid Expansion provision in the federal Affordable Care Act. “To prevent those cost shifts, to insure Montanans, to reduce losses to healthcare providers and to utilize federal funds which without Legislative Action will simply revert to other states.”

Medicaid Expansion is part of a wider initiative Bullock calls Access Health Montana. It also includes a proposal to expand opportunities for medical students and a two percent rate increase to healthcare providers.

The Bullock budget includes more education spending than Governor Schweitzer’s budget while keeping in Schweitzer’s tuition freeze at state colleges and Universities.

“We’ve proposed to fix the pension system,” Bullock said. The state’s two biggest employee retirement programs have large budget shortfalls, amounting to about $3 billion dollars over the next 30 years. Fixing the pensions has long been labeled a top priority for this upcoming Legislative Session. Governor-Elect Bullock’s pension fix proposal closely follows that of Governor Brian Schweitzer.

It calls for higher contributions from public employees, their employers, and an infusion of revenue from natural resource development. Local governments have been skeptical of the proposal, saying it could lead to a forced increase e in property taxes. But Bullock says since election day he has earned their favor.

“I’m happy to announce the Montana Association of Counties and the Montana League of Cities and Towns will join my administration… in putting forward a solution to the public employee retirement system that I think we can all support,” Bullock said.

Republican Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel is not ready to go that far.

“I think it’s a step in the process,” he said. Blasdel and lawmakers received the proposed budget at the same time as the press this morning.

“I’ve just briefly gotten to look at it, we welcome the Governor’s ideas,” Blasdel said.

He stopped short of outright endorsing or opposing priorities in the budget. Yet, he says Republicans support a form of permanent property tax relief rather than the one-time $400 dollar property tax refund present in the Bullock budget.

“If you look over the last few bienniums there’s been a surplus in most of them which means the taxpayers have over-performed,” Blasdel said.

Republican leadership has also been cold to the idea of Medicaid Expansion, not wanting to rely on the large financial support provided from the federal government. But leaders say they are still optimistic they will find common ground.

Blasdel says he needs to be a little vague in responding to the budget, considering the amount of discussion yet to come.

“Well absolutely,” he said. “I think every session takes on a life of its own. What may be the major issues at the beginning don’t always end up being the final issues at the end.”

Blasdel says he hopes this Legislative Session, and the Republican caucus remains focused.

“Focus on bills that you think the Governor can sign, work with people that you may have not worked with in the past, to see if there’s some kind of compromise without compromising your values as well,” he said.

That search for compromise begins Monday, when the 63rd Montana Legislature convenes.

Montana lawmakers cite term limits a top reason for decline in legislative statesmanship

State lawmakers convene in less than two weeks for the 2013 Montana Legislature.

Political leaders are touting what they hope will be a productive session, one perhaps more civil than the rancorous 2011 Legislature.

At this point, however, those hopes are still just that.

It’s been a long time since Republican Verner Bertelsen served in the Montana Legislature.

Well, about 30 years.

The 94 year-old former Secretary of State felt lawmakers in his day had more freedom to act outside party dogma.

“We had the opportunity to act as individuals and not as puppets on a string,” Bertelsen said.

Bertelsen was known for being very moderate and voting with Democrats regularly. He did eventually lose his seat in the Legislature after losing his primary to a more Conservative Republican in the 1980s. Still, Bertelsen doesn’t like the tone he’s been seeing from modern legislatures, and the first reason he cites is the implementation of term limits in the early 90s.

“And I didn’t really see that to begin with,” he said. “I thought maybe some of those old boys who have been there 25 or 30 years need to take a vacation. But I didn’t realize doing away with all of this knowledge about how to operate a legislature and how to be able to negotiate across the lines made a terrific difference in what you can accomplish.”

Legislative term limits were put in place by Montana voters in 92. That constitutional initiative was passed by a large majority, and term limits still enjoy wide public support. Lawmakers cannot run for an office if they have held that position for any 8 years in a 16 year period.

Senate Minority Leader from the 2011 Legislature, Missoula Democrat Carol Williams is reaching the end of her term limit at the end of this year.

She wasn’t able to think of any positives from the implementation of term limits.

“With term limits the really serious power all moved to the executive branch or to the lobbyists,” she said, adding the part-time legislators cannot stay around long enough to gain that kind of clout.

Williams also believes the rise of the Tea Party has made the state legislature more prone to bickering.

She says Tea Party lawmakers didn’t seem to want to make government work in 2011.

“Consequently, you can’t fix anything because that isn’t what their intention is, their intention is to make it go away,” Williams said.

“Obviously the atmosphere in Helena could have been better,” Incoming Senate President, Billings Republican Jeff Essmann said of the 2011 Legislature. “We’re obviously looking forward to working with the new governor, establishing a new tone and getting down to work.”

“What can you do to promote a greater tone of civility in the issues that will be heated and divisive?” I asked.

ESSMANN: “I think number one the focus needs to be on policies and not personalities…There’s been a trend within our society to try to demonize people with whom we disagree and I’ve always tried to avoid that in my work in the legislature,” he said.

But Essmann also says term limits have reduced the strength of leadership in the Legislature.

Spokesman for Governor Elect Steve Bullock Kevin O’Brien says Governor Bullock will be a partner to anyone who wants to create jobs, but if “spear hunting and gold standard bills” reach Bullock’s desk, he says they will be rejected.

Health professionals tell lawmakers about priorities

A collection of healthcare professionals in Helena are outlining priorities for state lawmakers.

The group met over breakfast Tuesday.

Proposed Medicaid Expansion will likely dominate the Legislative session beginning in January.

The attendees of this early morning breakfast chose from large pans of scrambled eggs, tater tots and bacon. Sitting in a large conference room in St. Peters Hospital, they talked healthcare.

The hospital sponsored the event along with the County Health Department, and other health organizations like tobacco use prevention groups.

They took turns speaking to two Democratic lawmakers; another Democrat and Republican weren’t able to make it.

When the mic comes around to Helena Democratic Senator Christine Kaufmann, she makes clear her focus for the legislature.

“The biggest impact of anything we do this session is to cover uninsured people,” she said, referring to the decision the legislature will make on whether or not to expand Medicaid coverage.

Medicaid Expansion is a provision of the Federal Affordable Care Act. An upfront payment of $5 million by the state would trigger federal funds to cover about 80 thousand new Medicaid patients in Montana.

Democratic Lawmakers are expressing support but many Republicans are not on board yet. Some GOP legislators have characterized Medicaid Expansion as an unreliable and expensive overreach of the federal government.

It’s a divisive discussion, and Helena Democratic Representative Jenny Eck believes it will be at the forefront of the legislative health debate.

“It’s a big choice we have to make as a state and it’s not a choice we can ignore,” Eck said, “But I do think we have to remember there’s a lot of ways to address our healthcare crisis.”

And that’s where most of the attendees at the breakfast came in, not talking about Medicaid expansion but a whole host of other things. Mental Health Services, the Childrens Health Insurance Program, and so on. A lot of the discussion revolved around wellness, which is what St. Pete’s Radiologist Dr. Jeff Georgia was talking about. He started by walking over to the breakfast pans.

“Turns out the cafeteria food is fat laden,” he said, “we’ve got bacon and eggs and tater tots.”

There is also a bowl of fruit, but Dr. Georgia says he’d like to see the healthy food dominate a breakfast like this. He says every dollar invested into programs promoting wellness and preventive care saves around seven dollars in healthcare costs for patients later.

“The problem in the Legislature tends to be that the things that are the most dramatic get the most funding and sick people with coronary artery disease, that’s a dramatic presentation,” Georgia said.

Lewis and Clark County Health Officer Melanie Reynolds agrees.

“You know, that is always a challenge for the public health community, for us to talk about something that will have benefits way down into the future,” Reynolds said.

But she says those types of bills will still be a priority.

“We’re looking at legislation that makes the healthy choice the easier choice for citizens,” Reynolds said.

A priority that will have to likely stand in the shadow of Medicaid Expansion.

Stakeholders discuss Medicaid Expansion at annual Healthcare Forum

Stakeholders across the healthcare industry gathered in Helena today to discuss big changes coming in the next year.

Medicaid Expansion dominated the conversation at this healthcare forum conference.

That expansion is an option states have to comply with provisions in the Federal Affordable Care Act.

It still would have to be approved by a Republican-dominated legislature.

The Montana Healthcare Forum is an annual event. It’s organized and sponsored by stakeholders ranging from insurance companies to hospitals, nonprofits and universities.

Montana AARP Advocacy Director Claudia Clifford was on the organizing committee. She said there was a feeling of particular importance this year.

“First of all, it’s right before a legislative session,” she said, “that always makes things feel more urgent but this is a big deal that we’re gonna address probably providing healthcare for half of our uninsured population.”

Or, at least that’s what’s on the table for state legislators—Medicaid Expansion. If the state provides $5 million in what’s being called administrative costs, the federal government will provide the rest of the money to cover about 80 thousand new Montanans under Medicaid.

Economist Sarah Wilhelm works as Research Director for the nonprofit Montana Budget and Policy Center. She says recent research from the University of Montana shows expansion to be a good deal for the state.

“The numbers are really striking because what we see is that medicaid expansion could actually pay for itself,” she said.

Wilhelm says a large influx of federal dollars could create new jobs and higher incomes. This would lead to increased tax revenues that would offset the money paid by the state over a nine year time frame.

“It’s a historic moment,” said Helena Democratic Senator Mary Caferro. “It’s an opportunity to finally do something about the uninsured issue.”

She says the information presented at the healthcare forum solidifies her support for expanding Medicaid. She says she believes lawmakers will put their differences aside and approve it.

“Because Legislators recognize that the majority of montanans are not extreme and the majority of Montanans want real solutions to this issue,” Caferro said.

Democrats like Caferro, however, are not in control of the Legislature.

“Federal Dollars isn’t just free money that falls out of a tree, those dollars are coming from us,” said Helena Republican Representative Liz Bangerter.

She presented at the healthcare forum with Democratic Senator Caferro. Bangerter says lawmakers need to think about the stability of those federal funds before expansion.

“I just don’t think we can guarantee that those payments will be at that level for the next nine years no matter whose in the executive office or in congress,” she said, adding she’s not so sure Republican lawmakers will go for it. “If you were to just go up and say Federal Medicaid expansion the caucus would kill it.”

But a uniquely Montana solution, crafted along with the stakeholders at the healthcare forum, she says that may be considered.

The state budget outlined by outgoing Governor Brian Schweitzer calls for passing the expansion.

Legislature reaches unprecedented stalemate on revenue estimate

A committee of state lawmakers found themselves in an unprecedented stalemate earlier this week.

The legislature’s Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee failed to pass an official revenue estimate in their last scheduled meeting before the legislative session begins in January. It’s the first time the committee has not passed a revenue estimate since the current process was put into place a couple decades ago.

The estimate failed on a party line vote as democrats are trying to get some change into the process.

The Montana Legislature’s revenue estimate is a big deal. Legislative services chief legal counsel Todd Everts says it’s the starting point lawmakers use to set their budget. Because by law, budget expenditures cannot exceed the revenue estimate. So you have to have a revenue estimate “and under law it’s the revenue and transportation interim committee that’s required to introduce that resolution,” Everts said.

And normally the Revenue and Transportation committee passes the resolution on their last meeting before the session. They are required to do so before the first business day in December.

This time it failed on a six to six party line vote. Democrats wanted to take the revenue estimate resolution and put it into a bill—specifically the general budget bill known as House Bill two.

The Governor’s office has thrown their support behind the idea.

“What we’re proposing to do is no different than what every family in Montana does with their checkbook. Make sure your expenses and your revenues are all kept in one place,” said the Governor’s Budget Director, Dan Villa. It’s also a strategy.

“It would require that all 150 Legislators for the first time in four sessions actually have the opportunity to vote not only on what the expenses look like but what the revenues look like,” Villa said.

During the last few sessions, both Democratic and Republican Speakers of the House have sort of held the revenue estimate hostage from the Senate. This happens by the Speaker keeping the revenue estimate in the House Taxation committee and it never gets debated by the full House or Senate. Lawmakers on both sides during the interim have been working on a way to address this situation. The idea of moving the revenue estimate into the larger budget bill was the Democrat’s way of going about this. But Legislative legal counsel Todd Everts says it would be in conflict of the state constitution.

“The Constitution requires that the general appropriation bill shall only contain appropriations,” Everts said.

The Governor’s office disagrees. But Senate Minority Leader, Butte Democrat Jon Sesso says they will accept the recommendations of legislative staff.

“OK, we don’t want to push for an alternative our own attorneys are advising us against, so we set that down,” Sesso said.

But the Democrats still didn’t approve the resolution. Sesso says the Revenue and Transportation committee should wait until the Rules committee meets on December 3rd to consider some rule changes and then convene a last minute impromptu meeting to pass the revenue estimate.

Sesso says he’s worried by passing the revenue estimate first the rules to change how it would be implemented would not have been passed by the rules committee “and as a result it would have been business as ususal and I thought that we had bipartisan support that business as usual was not acceptable anymore,” he said.

Sesso and Senate President, Billings Republican Jeff Essmann  both sit on the Revenue and Transporation Committee.

Essmann calls this irresponsible. He says the committee was talking about rule changes to how the revenue estimate is put to use. But he says passing those rules is the job of the rules committee. The revenue committee, he says, is supposed to pass the estimate.

“To attempt to use their effort to block the fulfillment of a statutory duty in an effort to force a rule change I think was counter productive,” Essmann said.

Especially when there is general consensus on the amount of the revenue estimate which is rare. He’s not so sure there will be an impromptu meeting on December 3rd.

“I expect the rules committee to meet to discuss the proposed rule changes and make a decision,” he said.

“And then you will all meet as Revenue and Transportation right afterward?” I asked.

“No, that meeting has not been called,” Essmann replied.

“Do you expect it to be called?” I asked.

“Not at this point.”

“So then what happens if there is not a meeting held on its last statutorily possible date to pass that revenue estimate?”

“I’ll be discussing that with the Speaker of the House,” Essmann said.

If the estimate is not passed as required by law, Legislative legal Counsel Todd Everts isn’t sure what is going to happen.

“I’m not sure what the remedy would be,” he said.

Governor Schweitzer presents final budget

Governor Brian Schweitzer hands $2 calculators to Lee Newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison following Schweitzer’s last budget presentation on Thursday

Governor Brian Schweitzer has released the final state budget of his tenure.  He says the budget provides a roadmap for the 2013 legislature and Governor-Elect Steve Bullock as they discuss Montana’s finances in the coming months.

Schweitzer’s recommendations are in no way binding to either Bullock or the Legislature, but the Schweitzer budget will likely be used as the starting point. The popular, two-term Governor used the presentation of the final budget to tout what he sees as the successes of his Administration. Schweitzer also put forth a list of priorities he hopes the state keeps pushing forward when he leaves office.

Governor Schweitzer begins his last budget press conference after just returning from a week and a half-long trip to the Caribbean.

“I’m back from having my toes in the sand and a beer in my hand,” Schweitzer said.

In just a few weeks he’ll be handing over the reigns of Montana’s government to fellow Democrat Steve Bullock.

“Our last, most important duty is to pass a budget along to the next administration,” he said. A budget that continues the Schweitzer legacy of large, record-setting surpluses, which the Governor points out with characteristic tongue-in-cheek humility.

“Our cash in the bank today is actually $469,758,700 dollars and 47 cents…so we’re about ten times more than they’d had in history, let’s move along,” he said.

Schweitzer’s last budget focuses on the three biggest pieces of that budget, which he labels as education, medication and incarceration. Those three combine to make almost 88 percent of the budget.

“And it really matters to the people of Montana that we get these things right,” he said.

For education, which makes up half of a budget, he wants to invest $67 million into K-12 education. Schweitzer wants to freeze college tuition for the next two years by injecting $34 million dollars in the Montana University System. He says decisions like that in the past have led to recent reports showing Montana increasing its rate of those with a college degree at the fastest rate in the nation.

For the medication component Schweitzer seemed to reverse an earlier position on the state paying for the Medicaid expansion included in the Affordable Care Act. In the past, Schweitzer has expressed reservations about how much this could cost in the long term. But now, he says the state should spend $5 million dollars to get additional funding from the federal government to pay for Medicaid expansion.

“To get 80 thousand Montanans covered with health care, 80 thousand,” he said.

And for incarceration, Schweitzer wants to add $30 million dollars to the department of corrections. Schweitzer says most of the people in prison have drug or alcohol problems, he wants to increase funding for rehabilitation programs.

“To get people ready to go back into society,” he said.

Outside of those big three, Schweitzer touted his plan to fix the state’s ailing employee pension systems. The current funding model has those systems over $3 billion dollars in debt over the next 30 years. Schweitzer’s plan asks for higher contributions from both state employees and their employers as well as adding money from natural resource development.

He wants to boost state employee pay 5 percent each of the two years. Schweitzer advocates an $88 million dollar bonding bill for construction projects for the Montana Historical Society and at state Colleges and universities. He says this bill could create over 21 hundred jobs.

“We’re proposing this bonding bill to the next legislature and shame on them if they don’t pass it,” he said.

But the next legislature will be controlled by Republicans and they will be coming with their own priorities for the budget, including the nearly $470 million dollar surplus.

A spokesman for Governor-Elect Steve Bullock says they have just received Schweitzer’s budget and will be reviewing it before making their modifications.




2013 Montana Legislature chooses leadership

The lawmakers are back in town.

Members of the 2013 Legislature arrived in the capitol this week.

Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce tells us the parties have chosen their leadership in the Senate and House of Representatives.

And here’s the Associated Press story on the same topic by Matt Gouras:

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana legislators are picking new leaders in advance of the 2013 Legislature.

Republicans still control both chambers following last week’s elections.

In the Senate, Republicans ousted Senate President Jim Peterson of Buffalo and rejected current Speaker Pro Tempore Bruce Tutvedt’s bid for majority leader.

The GOP instead chose Sen. Jeff Essmann of Billings as their nominee for Senate president, Art Wittich of Bozeman as majority leader and Debbie Barrett of Dillon as speaker pro tempore.

Senate Democrats picked Jon Sesso as their new minority leader.

Republicans chose Mark Blasdel of Somers to fill a vacant House speaker’s post. Gordon Vance of Billings will be the new majority leader and Austin Knudsen of Culbertson was picked as speaker pro tempore.

House Democrats elected Chuck Hunter of Helena minority leader.