Republican infighting, Democrat wins and the new Senate race

Johnson, Mauk & Dennison 3SMALLTonight on “Capitol Talk”, our weekly legislative analysis program, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison about the growing split in the Republican party, who won and lost what in this legislative session, and the week’s political stunner: Senator Baucus’s decision not to seek re-election…

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Last ‘Medicaid Expansion’ proposal in Montana Legislature probably dead

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter (D-Helena), right, speaks with Montana Legislature Chief Legal Counsel Todd Everts about a vote to refer HB623 to committee, effectively killing it.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter (D-Helena), right, speaks with Montana Legislature Chief Legal Counsel Todd Everts about a vote to refer HB623 to committee, effectively killing it.

The last plan before state lawmakers to use federal Medicaid funds to expand health insurance to tens of thousands of uninsured Montanans is mostly likely dead after being referred to a committee hostile to the bill in the legislature’s final days.

HB623 would have used Medicaid Expansion funds provided to states through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to allow eligible low-income Montanans to buy private health coverage on the insurance exchanges also set up by ACA. The other, more standard, Medicaid Expansion bills have already been tabled by the legislature.

During Friday’s House floor session, House Speaker Mark Blasdel (R-Somers) said he was referring that bill back to the House Health and Human Services Committee. As far as Minority Leader Chuck Hunter (D-Helena) is concerned, that move probably kills the bill.

“That is the Committee that was built for the very purpose of saying no to any kind of expansion of Medicaid and that will no doubt be the fate of this bill as well,” he said.

Hunter appealed Speaker Blasdel’s decision to move the bill to committee—which takes a majority vote. But when the body took that vote, a few Representatives were confused on what their vote meant, like Great Falls Democrat Tom Jacobson.

“I hit my yes button, my green button in support of that motion which in my mind was in support of Chuck,” Jacobson said. “But apparently the way the motion was read, it should have been a no.”

Here’s how speaker Blasdel described the motion on the floor:

“Members of the body, this is a majority vote, a yes vote concurs with the ruling of the chair. A no vote does not.”

That would mean a yes vote agreed with Blasdel’s decision to send the bill to committee. The final tally was an even 50 to 50—with Jacobsen’s accidental vote the only Democratic yes. A tie vote in this circumstance went in Blasdel’s favor—sending the bill to the committee. House Members took a break shortly thereafter and leadership discussed options to reconsider that vote. The break lasted over an hour.

“I think that vote was a failure that didn’t adequately represent the true feelings of the members on the floor,” Hunter said. “When we came back to do a reconsideration the other side had whipped their votes and coerced some folks into changing their votes on those bills.”

A majority vote of 51 would have brought the bill back up to the floor—in theory that’s what the original vote would have been if Representative Jacobsen had voted with the Democrats like he intended. But the reconsideration vote failed 48-52. Speaker Blasdel agrees some minds were changed while leadership discussed reconsideration options.

“There was a lot of misunderstandings about what got put into that bill and what wasn’t,” he said. “There was a lot of discussion among members, obviously I just wanted to take time to look at things with the minority leader and figure out how we were going to proceed.”

Democratic Governor Steve Bullock strongly advocates Medicaid Expansion—and he was quick to condemn the decision.

“These legislators who voted to send our tax dollars out of state are going to have to go home and tell their bosses that they stood in the way of lower health care costs, they stood in the way of good paying jobs and they stood in the way of access to affordable health care for tens of thousands of Montanans who desperately need it,” he said. Great Falls Tribune Capitol Bureau Chief John S. Adams posted the Governor’s full comments.

The Governor did not outright refuse using a veto of the state budget as a bargaining chip to get lawmakers to reconsider some kind of Medicaid Expansion, saying “I think everything’s on the table but we really should be responsible to make sure this gets done, be that this week or the weeks ahead.”

The Legislature is set to wrap up sometime next week.

Why Governor Bullock says it took so long to introduce Medicaid Expansion bill

Governor Steve Bullock (D-MT), left, and Representative Chuck Hunter (D-Missoula) sit for an interview in the Governor's office Wednesday

Governor Steve Bullock (D-MT), left, and Representative Chuck Hunter (D-Missoula) sit for an interview in the Governor’s office Wednesday

Looking to move forward on one of the biggest, and most controversial, issues before the Montana Legislature this session, Governor Steve Bullock introduced his bill for Medicaid Expansion this week. The expansion is rolled into a larger health proposal Bullock calls Access Health Montana (HB590)

The Governor’s office says his bill will expand Medicaid to 70-thousand needy Montanans and create five-thousand jobs in the next year. The Federal Government will cover 100-percent of the expansion costs, but the state would face about $5 million in administrative costs related to the expansion and other requirements of the Affordable Care Act over the next two years, according to a report by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

The bill’s introduction comes nearly two-thirds of the way through the session. Bullock says that has given “the public the opportunity to start paying attention to this whereas many things get buried at the start of the session.”

Representative Chuck Hunter (D-Helena) is carrying Bullock’s Access Health Montana Bill. He says the extra time has allowed for discussions behind the scenes on the bill, “but I think it’s allowed us a chance to be thoughtful about what’s in the bill and to really make sure out of the many approaches to transforming the system that the approach was right.”

But the late introduction is giving Republican lawmakers pause.

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

“We’ve been waiting for quite some time to see the Governor’s bill, and finally it’s introduced,” said House Speaker Rep. Mark Blasdel (R-Somers) Blasdel has assigned the bill to the House Human Services Committee where a hearing will be held on March 25th.

“This is a billion dollar decision for Montana,” said Republican Senator Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge), “We’re gonna make it in 15 days? It’s irresponsible.”

Priest is sponsoring a bill which would push back any implementation of Medicaid Expansion. As Mike Dennison of Lee Newspapers reports, the bill would create a bi-partisan committee to study Medicaid Expansion over the next two-year  legislative interim period.

Priest says the first reason for legislators to study their options is there is no hard deadline for the expansion. “It’s not like looking at this option in more depth prevents us from taking advantage of any expansion opportunity.”

Priest does not support Bullock’s bill as written. He advocates other reform systems for the uninsured, such as the idea of providing premium support for low-income Montanans to buy health insurance on the open-market.

Senator Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge)

Senator Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge)

“If we can reform the existing Medicaid system and the expanded population then I’m willing to consider voting to implement a reformed system under Obamacare,” Priest said.

Representative Hunter calls Priest’s bill to create a study committee on Medicaid Expansion a delay tactic. He says the Legislature also created a study committee after voting in 2011 not to create a state-run healthcare exchange under the Affordable Care Act.

“That study bill really resulted in no meaningful study and no progress on the issue. That’s how I see this proposal as well,” Hunter said.

“If we don’t do this now,” Bullock said, “if we study it for two years or four years or six years. Those are Montana tax dollars that will be going to cover insurance for individuals in Arizona, North Dakota, Nevada and other states.”

Senator Priest argues Montana already receives more money than it puts in from the federal government, “so Montana dollars aren’t going somewhere else, we’re already receiving everybody else’s dollars.”

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.