Bullock vetoes draw GOP criticism

Governor Steve Bullock has finished working through bills from the 2013 Legislative Session. Bullock signed 393 bills this session.

But Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce says he vetoed 71.  

In addition, check out this report from Matt Gouras of the Associated Press:

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A legislative session that began with promises of compromise ended with a whole bunch of vetoes from Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday — and plenty of criticism from Republicans who argued the governor was undermining bipartisan efforts.

Bullock let 10 low-profile measures become law without his signature on Tuesday, the last of the bills sitting on his desk from the session that adjourned late last month. A day earlier he was much more active when he issued 27 vetoes to bring his total to 71 for the session — just shy of Brian Schweitzer’s record of 78 from two years ago.

Republicans — including members of a coalition that helped advance the session’s biggest bills — criticized the governor’s moves as overly partisan. The lawmakers had entered the session hopeful of improved relations after mostly coming up short in battles with former Gov. Brian Schwietzer.

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, addresses the House Taxation Committee. He is proposing legislation to change Montana's income, property and business equipment taxes. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk. Community News Service. University of Montana.)

Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, addresses the House Taxation Committee. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk. Community News Service. University of Montana.)

“I wish the governor had taken a different tact. It appears he took an aggressive tact just like Brian Schweitzer,” said Republican state Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, a Kalispell farmer. “It hurts. Truthfully hurts. At least we knew with Schweitzer that he didn’t respect us. And while there was never a quid pro quo with this governor, we were working with him to deliver good responsible legislation and now when it was his turn to do the right thing for the right reasons it appears he took a very partisan attitude.

Tutvedt, who is among a dissident GOP group billing itself the “responsible Republicans,” noted that Bullock took out many measures from that group such as plans to improve agricultural research and to help oil-boom towns deal with overloaded infrastructure.

Tutvedt said those Republicans who had been willing to work with Democrats will be much more cautious next session.

“I had high hopes for Gov. Bullock,” Tutvedt said. “We are going to have to take a more guarded view next time.”

Bullock argued in veto messages sent to the lawmakers that he needed to save money with the vetoes to get closer to his targeted surplus of $300 million, compared to the less than $200 million left by lawmakers. He also argued the GOP tax measures disproportionately helped the wealthy.

The governor was planning a news conference for later Tuesday.

Republican leaders bemoaned the loss of some of their priorities, including income tax cuts that included a plan for simplification that reduced rates and got rid of most tax credits.

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

Representative Mark Blasdel (R-Somers)

Republican House Speaker Mark Blasdel criticized the governor for vetoing a bill that would have exempted businesses from paying equipment tax on pollution control equipment mandated by the federal government. Yet he noted the governor signed money-spending measures, such as those to fix the state’s pension system and give state employees a pay raise.

“I think a lot of his actions show that his interest has been to take care of state government and not to take a look at addressing concerns of everyday citizens,” Blasdel said.

Blasdel commended Bullock for improving the tone in Helena, compared to when Schweitzer was torching Republican bills with a hot-iron VETO brand. The results, however, were the same, Blasdel said.

“I still think his vetoes show his ideology and his political stances. I think the tone changed, but his ideology and stances didn’t,” said Blasdel, a Somers restaurant owner.

Lawmakers will be polled on many of the measures for a veto override, which requires a supermajority of lawmakers and would require unlikely Democratic support. Such veto overrides are rare.

In total for the session, the governor received 490 bills. He signed 387 of them, vetoed 71, used line-item veto authority on three spending bills and let another 28 become law without his signature.

Conservative Republican leaders — who rarely supported any of the budget bills that were largely crafted by Democrats and some Republicans — bashed the governor. Estimates show spending goes up about 13 percent over the next two years under the plan becoming law.

“His vetoes show that he just wants the status quo. He wants the establishment running supreme over taxpayers,” Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich of Bozeman said.

Unofficial ‘pocket vetoes’ kill several bills

pocket vetoGovernor Steve Bullock says GOP leadership blocked a number of measures during the 2013 Legislature using an unofficial parliamentary procedure called a ‘pocket veto’, where a presiding officer will fail to schedule a bill for a vote or hearing by the deadline to do so.

At least two bills in the House have been identified as ‘pocket vetoes’–HB217 and SB19. Both made it to the Governor’s desk in their original forms but were not scheduled in the House after they returned with amendatory vetoes from Bullock. At least one bill in the Senate, SJ27, was not scheduled in the Senate.

“Nowhere in how we explain the way government works to kids is it ‘Well, you provide an amendatory veto and then if one individual doesn’t like it he can just not schedule it and make sure the bill dies,'” Bullock said.

“Well, obviously I have the opportunity to choose when to schedule them,” House speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers said, adding the Legisature has rules in place that can override a speaker’s decision not to schedule a bill.

“Part of my job is to stand up for legislators when their bills take a turn for the worst and something they didn’t intend for and didn’t expect,” he said.

HB217 was originally designed to clarify election laws regarding religious organizations. Yet, after Bullock received the bill he amended in disclosure provisions from his failed campaign finance overhaul legislation, the TRACE Act. Speaker Blasdel calls this a ‘hijacking’ of the bill’s original intent.

“Bills like that, and my vetoes,” Bullock said, “they should rise and fall on their merits. Let individuals actually vote them up or down. Don’t just try to hide them away in some desk drawer.”

In a Thursday interview, Bullock also said dozens of bills that passed both the House and Senate have yet to be signed by Republican Leadership and delivered to his desk. Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, was in his office at that time signing those bills. Essmann’s office said Friday all were signed and delivered.

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.”

Blast from the Past: Why House members are dressing in 1913-period clothing

Reps. Ed Greef (R-Florence) and Ray Shaw (R-Sheridan) converse before House session commemorating 100th birthday of the state House Chambers

Reps. Ed Greef (R-Florence) and Ray Shaw (R-Sheridan) chat before House session commemorating 100th birthday of the state House Chamber

No, the center aisle of the Montana House of Representatives is not normally lined with spittoons–just today, in an homage to the past.

The likes of spittoons, top hats and ascots were common place 100 years ago, when the current House Chamber was first used. To celebrate, House members are trying to bring it all back. The chamber itself has been re-decorated, House members and staff are dressed in period clothing, and today’s floor session even features mock debate on bills from the 1913 session.

“This occasion only comes around every 100 years,” House Speaker Mark Blasdel (R-Somers) said in a press release. The Legislature has just returned from its transmittal break and Blasdel says the schedule was light enough to swing this re-enactment.

Business continues as usual for House Page Logan Schuelke

Business continues as usual for House Page Logan Schuelke

“We would only have had 8 bills on the floor today and none tomorrow,” Blasdel said. “So we rescheduled all the bills for tomorrow. There’s no other day on the calendar when we would have been able to take the time.”

Representative Tom Woods (D-Bozeman) was working on his Macbook Pro decked out in a bowler hat, spats, and a vest he wore in his wedding. He says it’s important to recognize the past, and to further urge togetherness among lawmakers: “(This) has started out to be a very good session in terms of relations between parties on both sides of the aisle. I think (this activity) is probably promoting that camaraderie, that civility.”

The 1913 bills being ‘discussed’ today on the House floor:

  • HB 94: Defining the Crime of Seduction and fixing the penalty therefore 
  • HB 64: Defining the term Communicable Disease
  • HB 156: Regulate the sale of intoxicating liquor
Rep. Kristin Hansen (R-Havre) wears the demure expression of the times

Rep. Kristin Hansen (R-Havre) wears the demure expression of the times

Gov. Bullock mum on veto strategy

Governor Steve Bullock (D-Montana)

Governor Steve Bullock (D-Montana)

Democrats in the Montana Legislature do not have nearly the power of their Republican counterparts.

The GOP controls both the House and Senate and are able to set much of the agenda.

But Democrats do control the Governor’s office, and therefore, the power of the veto.

Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce tells us Governor Bullock has not yet used his veto pen, and he’s staying quiet as to how he will exercise that authority.

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.