Legislative Roundup: House Rules, Medicaid and Public Lands Dominate First Week of Montana Legislature

by Shaylee Ragar

UM Community News Service | University of Montana School of Journalism

The 66th Montana Legislature opened for business Jan. 7 and lawmakers spent much of the first week discussing what they hope to see for hot topic issues and bills, like public lands and Medicaid expansion.

After newly-elected Senators and Representatives were sworn in, the House voted on a temporary rules bill, which ultimately hedged off a battle among legislators that had been escalating in weeks leading up to the session.

The House rules are contentious because they have potential to greatly affect the way big bills like Medicaid expansion or infrastructure move through the Legislature.

Democrats proposed an amendment to rules last month that would have lowered the number of votes needed to “blast” a stalled bill out of committee to the full House for debate. Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, said requiring a 60-vote majority for blast motions “buried” the talent of the opposing party.

“It’s like the head football coach of the Griz picking the starting lineup of the Cats,” Woods said in a committee hearing.

The 60-vote majority has sometimes led to bills getting stuck in “kill committees” where majority leadership could send a bill to die due to inaction. Democrats wanted a rules change to make that a simple majority, or 51 votes, and gained support from some moderate Republicans in December.

However, the moderates and GOP-conservatives were able to strike a deal before day one of the session and settled on a temporary rule mandating a 58-vote majority for a blast motion, the same number of Republican representatives in the House. Those rules had a Friday expiration debate.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted on HR 1 to enact the 58-vote majority rule. This is a compromise for conservatives like Kalispell Rep. Derek Skees, who also chairs the House Rules Committee.

“I would greatly prefer the majority in control,” Skees said.

Another rule change mandates that a simple majority must approve changes to committee assignments, whereas before it was the solely the decision of the Speaker of the House.

Medicaid Bills Take Shape at Montana Legislature

Gov. Steve Bullock says he wants to shift the conversation on Medicaid expansion this legislative session.

At a press conference early in the first week, Bullock presented a study from the Montana Department of Revenue and the Department of Labor and Industry. Bullock used the study to make a case for Medicaid expansion’s benefits to businesses and the economy since it passed in 2015.

“In almost three out of five businesses in our state, those businesses rely on Medicaid expansion to provide healthcare for some portion of their employees,” Bullock said.

In 2015, a group of moderate Republicans broke away from conservatives to expand Medicaid. The program requires re-authorization from the Legislature to continue. The program gets a majority of its funding from the federal government, leaving a portion for states to cover. Nearly 100,000 Montanans are now enrolled, which is more than originally predicted.

Republicans say they are still hesitant about the size of the program and Speaker of the House Greg Hertz, R-Polson, says making Medicaid expansion sustainable and affordable will be a main concern.

“I think the goal of a lot of legislators is to try to continue the Medicaid expansion program but to put some sideboards on it,” Hertz said.

Hertz says adding work requirements, asset and drug testing are ideas floating around that could contain enrollment in the program.

Later in the week, Democrats presented a Medicaid expansion bill they plan to introduce called the Keep Montana Healthy Act.

Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, will carry the bill, which would remove the requirement that the program be re-authorized by the Legislature. Caferro said the bill would make only a few tweaks to the current program, which she called a “model for the whole country.”

“We maybe need to work around the edges, but we have an excellent program,” Caferro said.

Great Falls Republican Rep. Ed Buttrey is also set to unveil a different version of a Medicaid bill. It’s called the Medicaid Reform and Integrity Act and Buttrey has said it will include some kind of community or work requirement so that everyone has “some skin the game.”

Other Republicans have said they would like to see audits of personal holdings, and/or drug testing implemented as eligibility requirements for the program.

Bullock said in a meeting with the press that he’s optimistic going into the session, but said he’s wary of partisan grandstanding.

“I certainly hope that legislators won’t give way to just party politics and they need to look at the interests of their constituents,” Bullock said.  

Proposed Bill Would Eliminate License Suspension For Court Debts

An unlikely group is backing a bill that would change the way Montana courts penalize failure to pay court debts, eliminating the suspension of a driver’s license as an option.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and Americans for Prosperity, two groups that rarely work on the same side of an issue, were part of a press conference announcing the bill during the first week of the Legislature. Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, will carry the bill.

Current law stipulates that a judge can suspend someone’s driver’s license if they don’t make payments for fines, court costs or restitution. Knudsen said this practice is “morally inexcusable.”

“Good, hard-working people are being forced into a modern-day debtors’ prison through the suspension of their driver’s license,” Knudsen said.

Proponents of the bill argue that driver’s license suspension only further hinders a person’s abilities to get to work and pay of their fines, and that the law criminalizes poverty.

SK Rossi, advocacy and policy director for ACLU Montana, said that often people have fines and fees that get tacked onto payments they’ve already defaulted on. This bill will protect them from having their license revoked when they are no longer able to “make ends meet,” Rossi said.

Knudsen said the state suspends more than 10,000 licenses yearly. A draft of his bill will be introduced in committee soon.

Public Lands Rally Fills Capitol

A vocal, overflowing crowd filled the Capitol rotunda on Friday to show support for public lands.

Specifically, the rally was to support keeping Montana’s public lands in federal management hands. In past legislative sessions, bills have been introduced calling for the transfer of federal public lands into state management. Opponents of transfer argue the state doesn’t have the resources to take on the task, and that it would make selling public lands into private ownership easier.

Gov. Steve Bullock said “that ain’t gonna happen” in a keynote address.

The rally was organized by a number of groups, including the Montana Wilderness Association, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Wildlife Society.

Sen. Jon Tester made a surprise appearance and talked about efforts in Congress to protect federal management of public lands. He also criticized Republicans for a party platform that supports transfer and Congress’ failure to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, a Republican from Thompson Falls, has often supported the idea of state taking over public land management. In response the rally, she sent an email saying the state would not sell or privatize any land.

“As more and more people realize that we can and must do better, more and more people are realizing that it is time to bring land management decisions closer to home — where they belong,” Fielder wrote.

No bills have been drafted yet to allow management to be transferred in Montana.

Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association. Shaylee can be reached at shaylee.ragar@umontana.edu.