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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Medicaid Expansion Bill Tangled In Fight Over House Rules

Montana Capitol.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio

The lone bill barely alive at the Montana Legislature that expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor is now tangled in a procedural fight over the House rules.

It will be an interpretation of those rules that will determine whether the full House gets to debate this bill on the floor.

This fight over Medicaid Expansion began long before the Republican-controlled House Human Services Committee held yesterday’s hearing on Senate Bill 405.

But it came to a head during executive action held after the four and a half hour hearing on this bill.

A month ago this same committee, with no debate, killed the Bullock Administration’s proposal.

This time, amendments were offered and there was debate. The first, on a party-line vote, gutted the language in Senate Bill 405  and replaced it with the Governor’s proposal in House Bill 249. That amendment was offered by Republican Representative Stephanie Hess of Havre and prompted this response from Democratic Representative Ellie Hill.

"I am just beyond shocked," said Hill. "Representative Hess, members of the committee you voted to [recommend] 'do not pass' 249 and now you’re going to sit before your constituents in this body and say this is what you want? I think that that’s dirty dealing."

The committee then proceeded to put two more amendments on the bill, including to put this issue before voters.

Democratic Representative Denise Hayman says her constituents in Bozeman told her they wanted Medicaid expansion.

"I’m embarrassed for all of us," said Hayman. "I’m embarrassed because you’re making a joke of my job. I’m embarrassed to tell my constituents. My god we heard nine hours of testimony and we couldn’t figure it out and we’re going to pass it back to the voters. No. I can’t support this. This is not who I am. This is not why I’m here. And it’s making a mockery of why we are all here."

But that amendment passed even though Republican Representative Alan Doane joined all Democrats in voting no.

Hill says a minority of this body is playing fast and loose with the majority of the House that wants a solution and that this compromise bill is that solution.

"Is there any integrity at all between us because we sit on opposite sides of the aisle?" She asked. "How could you sit here and vote to substitute 405 for 249 then vote to put it on the ballot and then the whole time the scheme, the procedural scheme, was to 'do not pass?'"

"Somehow this compromise is widely shared is hogwash," said Committee Chairman Art Wittich of Bozeman .

"The governor has taken an all or nothing approach by getting certain senators from the Republican Party to carry his water," said Wittich. "He has not spoken to Senate or House leadership or the conservative branch to get true compromise. He’s been unwilling to compromise. It’s an all or nothing approach and he may just get what he wants."

When Hill tried to move the previous question for a vote, Wittich snapped. "I’m not done."

Meanwhile, the sponsor Senator Ed Buttrey sat shaking his head during Wittich’s remarks.

After the ten to seven party line vote to send Senate Bill 405 to the floor with an adverse committee report, Buttrey says it’s hard to come up with a response to a flat out lie.

"It's just a shameful lie and he knows it," said Buttrey. "You hang your head a bit when you hear something like that in a place that's esteemed like the Capitol and the way things are supposed to run. I'm ashamed."

Buttrey says he had asked the chairman to hold off on executive action for one day so he could read the proposed amendments, but he never got a response. He says the bill is now in the hands of the House.

Last week, House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter sent a letter to the House Speaker saying that Democrats wanted to designate one of their so-called silver bullets for this bill.

He contends doing that heads off an adverse “do not pass” committee report and would allow the bill to be brought to the full House for debate on a simple majority rather than the normal super majority.

Speaker Austin Knudsen disagreed causing the House to stand at ease while the members debated the rules.

Minority Leader Chuck Hunter says he fully expected it to come to this.

"I expect procedural roadblocks, the minutia you would not believe that we’ll have to deal with to get this bill on the floor," said Hunter. "They will find everything they can to try to prevent this bill from being voted up or down on this floor."

The House Rules Committee has scheduled a noon hearing. It won’t be to discuss the “silver bullet” request or the adverse committee report, but on fine point on procedure and process for this bill.

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