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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Democrats Cry Foul Over Medicaid Expansion Vote

Steve Jess

Governor Bullock’s Medicaid expansion plan is apparently dead for this legislative session. Republicans on the House Human Services Committee voted to give it a “do not pass” recommendation, an unusual move that make resurrecting the bill very unlikely, and has drawn harsh criticism from Democrats.

It started Friday night, When the Committee gave the proposal its first hearing, drawing hundreds of witnesses from all over the state, most of them in favor of expanding Medicaid to cover an estimated 70,000 Montanans who fall into the gap between traditional Medicaid and subsidized insurance. Stephanie Wallace of Troy is one of them.

"I used to have health insurance through my job but my employer dropped it in 2013. My husband hasn’t had insurance in years. When I tried to get coverage for my husband and I through the marketplace, we weren’t eligible. We make too much to  qualify for family Medicaid, and not enough to qualify for the tax credits."

The 17 member committee heard hours of  testimony like this from hundreds of Montanans who were for Medicaid expansion, and about a dozen who were opposed, mainly because they saw it as more “big government” that could prove disastrous for the state’s economy. By 9:30 p.m., the hearing was over, but instead of adjourning the panel, chairman Art Wittich took an unusual step, by taking executive action on the bill.

Democrat Tom Jacobson of great Falls stepped in to make a motion

“Mister chair, I move that House Bill 249 do pass."

But Republican Alan Redfield of Livingston immediately offered a substitute motion

"Mister chair, I move a substitute motion of do not pass."

A “do not pass” motion is also an unusual step, one that makes it harder for the full House to pass the bill.  Democrat Jenny Eck of Helena immediately objected, because overcoming a do not pass recommendation takes 60 votes, not a simple majority of 51.

"The House rule that requires a supermajority of our members to overturn an adverse committee report violates this fundamental tenant of our democracy and therefor also violates our constitution," Eck objected.

Despite objections from Eck and other Democrats, the Human Services Committee approved the do not pass motion on a party line 10 to 7 vote.

Monday, Democrats called a news conference, with the bill's sponsor Pat Noonan of Ramsay charging that the Republican majority was afraid to let the bill come to the floor for a simple majority vote.

"I believe that the committee could have only acted in such an egregious manner because they feared that members of their own caucus may have been listening to the people," Noonan said. "Because they feared that the members of their caucus may have been pushing aside political games and political partisanship and parliamentary tricks, to listen to the people who sent them there."

Later in the day, House Minority leader chuck Hunter stood up on the House floor to voice his objections as well.

"This is a clear abuse of the power of a committee chairman and the committee process, and the point of the abuse is clear to all of us from day one. We knew that this kind of use of power was directed at preventing Medicaid expansion from being heard on this floor. That’s what it’s about, pure and simple, we all know it," said Hunter.

None of that moved Committee chairman Art Wittich. He called the Democrats’ objections political grandstanding, and said if they really had grounds to challenge the way the committee killed the Medicaid bill, there’s a process they could follow.

“He didn’t make a motion to go the rules committee. All he said was I object and the speaker said objection noted. If he really wanted some redress, there was a way to do that in the rules, and he didn’t do it," Wittich said of Rep. Hunter's objection.

As for the politics behind the death of the Medicaid bill, Wittich says the committee didn’t disregard the hundreds of people who testified in favor of it. He says the committee just listened to the wishes of thousands of other Montanans who believe in smaller government, the people who might not have been at the hearing, but who voted Republican in the last election.

"Republicans were elected as a majority of the House and the Senate. Most people in Montana do not want to increase government and grow our welfare state. So even though there may have been more people that particular night who were bussed in, and who came in, and they were organized, doesn’t dictate the outcome."

Democrats have one slim hope for keeping the Governor’s Medicaid expansion alive: if they can swing 19 Republicans to vote with them, for a total of 60 votes, it can be brought up for a vote on the House floor.  They have not ruled that out, but at this point the bill is dead and likely to stay that way.

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