Montana’s legislative session doesn’t start for another seven weeks, but state lawmakers met at the capitol Wednesday to elect political leaders in the state House and Senate.
On tap for 2019: Another political face-off between the Republican majority in the House and Senate and Democratic Governor Steve Bullock - particularly over the future of Medicaid expansion in Montana.
Medicaid expansion narrowly passed in 2015. Then, moderate Republicans joined Democrats and Governor Bullock to extend health coverage to people with incomes below about $16,000 a year. Nearly 100,000 Montanans now have that coverage. But it will go away in June if lawmakers don’t re-authorize it this year.
Montana voters in November rejected ballot initiative 185, which would have made Medicaid expansion permanent, funding it with a new tobacco tax.
Newly elected House Speaker Greg Hertz, a Polson Republican, gave few specifics Wednesday about his party’s plans for the future of expansion.
“Well, when we look at Medicaid expansion and with I-185, not passing, it basically enables the sunset provision, which we originally intended in 2015. And that's what the process will be. We will be reviewing that throughout the legislative session. And yes, we’ll be looking at work requirements, asset testing and possibly some other restrictions too on Medicaid expansion participants.”
Funding the state’s growing expenses for Medicaid expansion will be a challenge for lawmakers. The state health department is still dealing with big budget cuts from the 2017 regular and special sessions.
During the last regular session, Bullock and Democrats proposed raising taxes on people who make over a half-million dollars a year, as well as increasing taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. All of those were rejected by Republicans.
Bullock is expected to release his budget this Thursday.
“And if he expects to fund that budget with tax increases, that’s going to be a difficult and non-starter getting that through the Republican legislature,” Hertz says.
Hertz says at the moment Republican goals for 2019 are simple - pass a balanced budget and to do so with little or no tax increases. He says it's likely for the chambers to once again debate an infrastructure funding package for the state.
“One thing the legislature can do is look at real infrastructure problems such as water, sewer and roads. And if we concentrate on that and get some of that accomplished that will relieve some of the local property-tax burden.”
Infrastructure has become a recurring stalemate issue for the Montana legislature, and Hertz's comment suggests lawmakers could again butt heads.
Large infrastructure bills have failed each of the last three regular sessions when lawmakers couldn’t agree on what kind of projects should receive funding or whether the state should use cash or debt to pay for them.
Hertz and other Republican leadership elected Wednesday called for a uniting within the GOP majority. Several suggested a united front among Republicans during the upcoming legislative session could help their party’s chances at reaching the governor’s office in 2020.
Republicans have controlled both chambers within the state house for the last several sessions, but have failed to grasp the power in the governor’s office for a decade and a half.
Hertz says one of his main goals in the coming months is to strengthen the core of the Republican party.
“It’s no secret that we’ve had our differences in 2015. We worked better in 2017. And we were very united in the special session. And my goal is to carry that unity forward into the 2019 session.”
Governor Steve Bullock’s release of his budget proposal for the 2019 session, Thursday, will serve as his starting point for negotiations in the session.
In a press release, the Governor's Office said Bullock is committed to continuing protecting healthcare, investing in education and building Montana's infracture. Details on what that means will likely be outlined in the coming days.