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.

Should Montana be taxing required pollution control equipment?

Senator Bruce Tutvedt (R-Kalispell)

Senator Bruce Tutvedt (R-Kalispell)

Montana lawmakers may vote to remove the state’s tax on certain industrial pollution control equipment.

Senator Bruce Tutvedt (R-Kalispell) is sponsoring SB240, which removes taxes on new “air and water pollution control equipment” installed by companies like electric cooperatives, power plants and factories.

“I believe that we all want clean water and we all want clean air,” Tutvedt told the House Taxation Committee now considering his bill, “but I believe that we should not tax those things that actually deliver that.”
Ashgrove Cement’s Dick Johnson has been running the plant outside of Helena for the last 16 years. He says these required pollution control measures don’t positively contribute to a businesses bottom line. He says his plant has recently invested $14.5 million to build a new scrubber and baghouse. “This investment does not increase our production, it doesn’t increase our employment base, it doesn’t increase our quality…our operating costs are higher on top of the capital expense of $14.5 million for absolutely nothing but cleaner air.”
Montana Mining Association lobbyist Tom Hopgood has a problem with the government requiring companies have certain equipment and then taxing that very equipment. “We don’t believe that’s good public policy, we don’t believe it’s fair.”
Senator Tutvedt argues the government exempts other entities from taxation that are seen as a public good, like hospitals and churches.
Representative Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls)

Representative Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls)

Representative Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls) has some reservations about the proposal. He argues pollution control equipment still adds value to a company “and therefore, based on our tax system there is a tax rate that should be attached to it.” However, Jacobson does say he understands the argument behind dropping the tax, saying “we should incentivize good behavior and penalize bad behavior.”  Jacobson says he prefers the idea of lowering the pollution control equipment tax–but not necessarily eliminating it.

Another bill by Representative Mike Miller (R-Helmville) does gradually lower the pollution control equipment from its current three percent. That bill is waiting in the Senate.

Legislative analysts say pollution control equipment in Montana brings in about $21 million a year in total tax revenue to state, county, and local governments. Senator Tutvedt’s bill would only remove taxes on equipment purchased on or after the first of the year–so it wouldn’t immediately touch that $21 million. However, that revenue would decrease over time as older equipment drops in value and companies upgrade.

Tutvedt’s bill passed it’s initial vote in the Senate 40-9. It’s final vote was caught up in the April 5th Senate Democratic Protest. That vote was 28-0. No one spoke against the bill in the House Taxation Committee hearing.

Lawmakers mull oil and gas trust fund

Representative Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls)

Representative Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls)

A Great Falls Democrat is trying to convince his fellow House members to put the idea of creating an oil and natural gas trust fund before voters in 2014.

Representative Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls) says his bill follows the lead of a coal trust fund created by the legislature in the 1970s.

“What this does is make us fiscally responsible, fiduciarily prudent, and puts money ahead for us for the future,” Jacobson said. His bill, HB589, would put some of the taxes already collected by the state into a trust that could not be ‘busted’ without a vote of three-fourths of the members of each legislative chamber. The state would only be able to spend the interest collected on the trust after its establishment in 2016. Jacobson says it would probably take between 20 and 25 years before the state is taking out more money than is being put in.
House members gave preliminary approval to the measure last Thursday with a 53 to 47 vote.
Representative Greg Hertz (R-Polson)

Representative Greg Hertz (R-Polson)

Several Republicans spoke against the measure, including Rep. Greg Hertz (R-Polson). He believes Montana should not be in the business of putting taxpayer money away in a savings account. “We need these tax dollars to help our schools and reduce property taxes.”

Another Republican, Austin Knudsen, who also works as an oil and gas attorney, says oil companies are already taxed too high in the state.
“I don’t know of any other commodity,” Knudsen said, “we don’t tax fat cattle, we don’t tax wheat, we don’t tax alfalfa, we don’t tax any other product at the levels that we tax oil.”
Representative Margie MacDonald (D-Billings) argued oil should be taxed more because it’s a finite resource. She says other nearby states and Canadian provinces have created these type of trust funds.
“Resource-rich states understand that these are one-time resources and we harvest the benefits from them in our generation, but there are future generations of Montanans who deserve a legacy from these resources as well. This is just good common sense,” she said.
A number of Republicans also spoke in favor of the measure, calling it a fiscally conservative move that could lower taxes down the line.
Because the trust fund would need to be created through altering the Montana Constitution, it must go before the voters before it’s created. Rep. Jacobson’s bill will need a 2/3rds majority of both legislative chambers combined to send the measure to voters.

Bill to hunt wolves with silencers passes crucial House vote

Courtesy Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks

Courtesy Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks

The Montana House of Representatives has passed second reading on a bill to allow hunters to use rifle silencers when hunting wolves. House Bill 27 would only allow silencers to be used after the general big game hunting season.

The sponsor, Representative Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman)  told the Helena Independent Record silencers help protect the hearing of hunters. He also says a company in his district makes rifles and silencers.

Washburn says about 600 Montanans already legally hunt with silencers when hunting coyote, fox, prairie dogs and gopher. He says those using silencers have to pass a 6-month federal background check and pay $250.

The House approved the bill 68 to 32. It has one more vote on third reading before moving the Senate.

Supporters say the bullets still make a loud noise when breaking the sound barrier and therefore don’t sound like silencers on TV shows. Rather, they make it much quieter just in the immediate vicinity of the gun. Representative Virginia Court (D-Billings) still voted against the bill. She worries about the impact on landowners not being able to hear where the shots are coming from. She says she hikes on her cabin property in the Tobacco Root Mountains and is “often comforted when I hear the sound of a rifle shot because at least I know that they’re in the area.”

Great Falls Democratic Representative Tom Jacobson voted against the bill while it was in the House Fish Wildlife and Parks Committee. But he changed his mind and voted for it, citing some amendments: “It’s outside of the normal season, so we don’t have to worry about that if we hunt deer or elk, it will help take down more wolves and I think it’s not an unfair advantage.”

The wolf hunting season lasts through the end of this month.