State Senator Dave Lewis looks back

Dave-Lewis-1024x734Republican State Senator Dave Lewis – a 40-year veteran of state government – recently wrapped up his final legislative session.
Lewis worked in the mining and smelting industries as a young man in North Idaho. He then found work on Forest Service fire crews for a few years. Lewis says he had a young family at that time and needed a little stability.
That’s why he responded to an ad in the paper in 1973 and became a budget analyst for the state of Montana. That move started a long career that sometimes placed him squarely in the center of contentious debates and difficult problems.
In this evening’s feature interview with Edward O’Brien, Lewis looks back at his past 40 years in state government:

Pat Williams, Medicaid expansion and Republican infighting on “Capitol Talk”

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 state Senate’s rejection of Pat Williams’ appointment to the Board of Regents, Republican infighting over Medicaid expansion, and why your next ballot may take awhile to read……


Chuck, Sally and Mike talk pay, pensions, family planning and Medicaid

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 state workers’ pay raises and pensions, the rejection of federal family planning money, and the governor’s Medicaid expansion bill….

Montana opens first state employee health clinic in Helena

Montana held a grand opening for the nation’s first state-run health clinic for public employees Thursday in Helena.

Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer toured the facility he says will keep the immediate area’s 11-thousand state workers and their dependents healthier while saving the state millions of dollars over the next few years.

“We’re completely full,” Schweitzer said about the Friday schedule, the clinic’s first day seeing patients.

He unveiled his plan for opening state employee health clinics back in February, and then set an aggressive schedule to have the first one open by late Summer. The administration’s proposal has several other clinics opening in other major Montana communities later.

The state is contracting with the private, Tennessee-based, company Care Here to operate the clinic with Montana employees. Physician Assistant Cassie Springer says she wanted to work at the clinic because she respects the facility’s preventive care model. Patients pay no co-pay or deductible.

The staff wants to get state employees in to see a physician early to catch problems before they get worse.

“We’re looking at bringing in patients regularly, staying on top of their healthcare,” she said. The state saves money if this prevents more costly treatments or emergency room visits down the line.

Health Care and Benefits Division Administrator in the Montana Department of Administration Russ Hill says a state analysis of the entire health clinic proposal shows Montana saving $100 million dollars over the next five years “based on full implementation for all clinics across the state.”

Governor Schweitzer says he’s been fielding attacks about his idea as government run health care.

“The first attacks were something about Obamacare. Well this has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act,” Schweitzer said. “The only thing this has to do with the Affordable Care Act is we are challenging expenses here in Montana because they didn’t challenge expenses in Washington D.C.”

Schweitzer says this is an idea from the private sector.  Companies like Google, Cisco, and Boeing use this on-site clinic model with their employees.

Healthcare consultant Mike La Penna has been researching the on-site clinic industry for the last decade, recently publishing a book on the subject.

He says counties and cities in other parts of the country have opened similar clinics, but never before on the state level.

“This is a game changer,” La Penna said. “Other state’s will be watching this closely.”

Helena Republican State Senator Dave Lewis has problems with the program. Not necessarily with this first clinic itself, he says it looks great. But it’s a big change, and Lewis does not think this kind of decision should be able to be made without legislative approval.

“The issue is whether or not a governor unilaterally has the authority to make that kind of policy change,” Lewis said. He is pursuing a bill for the next Legislature which would prevent that type of authority for the governor’s office in the future.

Schweitzer will be leaving office at the end of this year due to term limits.

Schweitzer continues to criticize Republican lawmakers for budget predictions

Governor Schweitzer speaks to reporters Tuesday

Governor Brian Schweitzer is pointing to the latest state budget figures showing the second-highest budget surplus in Montana history.

The state ended this past fiscal year last month with $453 million in the bank. Schweitzer used the figure to blast Republican majorities in the state legislature for passing a budget based on predictions of a large deficit—predictions the Governor calls outright lies.

Republicans are not apologizing.

Governor Schweitzer called a Tuesday morning press conference with reporters the start of his “I told you so Tour.”

Schweitzer is finishing his final term at the end of this year and says the results are in when it comes to his fiscal management style. He says he has presided over the largest budget surpluses in Montana history, including this last year. Over $450 million in the black. Schweitzer then used the press conference to repeatedly call Republican lawmakers liars and thieves.

It comes down to the financial predictions Republicans were using to set the state budget last legislative session. These figures came from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Division, predicting a possible $400 million shortfall for last fiscal year. Instead, Schweitzer again points out the budget came out $453 million ahead, which is close to what his budget office had been predicting the whole time.

“So that’s $853 million in a $1.8 billion budget. that’s not even close. that’s off by 40 percent,” Schweitzer said.

The Fiscal Division is normally off by about 6 percent. Schweitzer says that proves that Republican Legislators are unduly influencing that nonpartisan office.

“See, you can’t possibly guess 40 percent wrong unless somebody has their finger on the scale,” Schweitzer said. “When you look at exactly the same numbers, the Governor’s budget Office and the Legislative Fiscal Division. They come up with crazy numbers and we come up with numbers that were accurate. Tell yourself, what’s going on?”

“The Governor certainly is correct that he was right that we had stronger growth that anyone had anticipated,” said Helena Republican Senator Dave Lewis, a proponent of those deficit predictions. Lewis says the Fiscal Division is not being inappropriately swayed by Republicans.

“They’ve worked with Republican majorities and Democratic majorities over the years and that’s I think an insult on behalf of the Governor to say that about the professional staff of that office,” Lewis said.

Hey says they have been putting these predictions together for 40 years and have found conservative budget predictions to be safer. Staff at the Legislative Fiscal Division declined comment for this story. But Butte Democratic Representative and Legislative Finance Committee Chair Jon Sesso also defends the Fiscal Division, saying that office should be held harmless in this situation.

“They gave us scenarios,” Sesso said. “They gave us the optimistic picture, the middle of the road and the worst case scenario and it was the republican leadership that concentrated on the worst case scenario and that’s why we have the wide disparity.”

State Republicans say the Governor is not being civil in his attacks regarding the budget. They say their budget helped make sure finances were sound. Again, Senator Dave Lewis.

“We’ve always been trained to be cautious in Montana because we have a volatile revenue situation here because we’re a resource based economy and so we generally tend to be cautious and I certainly don’t apologize for that,” Lewis said.


Committee wants Legislature to vote on Governor’s ability to create State Employee Health Clinics

A committee of state lawmakers has voted to put a bill before the legislature deciding whether the Governor should have the authority to create a series of health clinics for state employees.

Governor Brian Schweitzer has pitched the state employee health clinics as a way to save money and provide better care.

Helena Republican Senator Dave Lewis says the Governor currently does not need legislative approval to make this move through the budget of the state insurance pool. Lewis wants that to change.

“So the Executive Branch, the Governor and his department can do whatever they want. We just felt major policy decisions in a pool of this importance should be reviewed by the Legislature and so we’re gonna ask a bill be prepared and submitted to the Legislature to require that in the future,” Lewis said.

The committee looking at the issue approved putting it before the legislature by a five to three vote. Billings Democratic Senator Kendall Van Dyk says the Governor has come up with innovative ideas in the health clinic proposal and Van Dyk says he supports the idea. He voted against putting its approval before the legislature in 2013.

“I don’t necessarily disagree with that in principal but I know the tone of this legislature and I know what they’re trying to do which is a backhanded attempt at preventing the governor from getting these facilities underway,” Van Dyk said.

The Governor’s office is in contract negotiations to open a clinic first in Helena then expand to other communities. Governor Schweitzer’s term in office expires at the end of the year.


Governor releases proposal to fix state pension plans

Governor Brian Schweitzer has released a plan he says will fix the state’s ailing pension system. The retirement plans for the state’s teachers and many other public employees have been running in the red for about a decade now. Schweitzer’s proposal includes increasing contributions from both state employees and the agencies that employ them. Lawmakers on both sides of the issue agree something needs to be done soon.

The state retirement plans are not solvent right now. That is to say Montana does not have the money set aside to pay them, and it’s on a downward slide.

Speaking to reporters, Governor Brian Schweitzer says that’s actually unconstitutional.

“You know, there’s some folks who say well, dog-gone it if we don’t have the money I guess we won’t pay them. But it doesn’t work that way. We have a constitutional requirement,” Schweitzer said.

The retirement plans split into two groups. There’s the Teacher’s Retirement System and the Public Employee Retirement system. For the Teacher’s Plan, the Governor is proposing a one percent increase in how much the employees contribute. Then, he is asking school districts to contribute a combined one time only amount of about $15 million dollars.

With the Public Employee System there would be a one percent increase to both the employees and the employing agencies, like local governments. The third component would be putting in more money from state trust lands.

Erik Feaver is President of the MEA-MFT, the state’s largest public employee union. He says he supports the plan, that his members realize something needs to be done.

“The fact is this is not unique to the Governor, we’ve been talking about this plan for some time, maybe not in every little detail…he is in part saying the sorts of things we would want him to say if we were actually lobbying him,” he said.

The Governor says his plan would make the retirement plans by about 2017.

Republican Senator Dave Lewis sits on the State Administration and Veteran’s Affairs Interim Committee, the committee that looks at the pensions. He says the plan may not go far enough.

“I’m willing to support looking into some one-time-only money simply to take care of the existing fund, but we’ve got to stop the growth of the problem and the only way to do that is to put new employees into a different kind of plan,” Lewis said. He proposes 401K plans for new employees.

The Governor’s proposal would need to go before the 2013 legislature, after Schweitzer has left office.