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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Capitol Talk': Budget Busting Cuts, ACA Repeal, And Zinke's Replacement In Congress

The Montana Capitol in Helena.
Mike Albans
Montana Capitol.

State lawmakers consider big budget cuts this session, including $93 million in cuts for the Department of Health and Human Services. The Montana Legislature begins preparations for the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and two familiar names are circulating for the special election to fill Ryan Zinke’s congressional seat — Gianforte and Baucus.

Join Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson, and Rob Saldin now for this episode of  "Capitol Talk."

Sally Mauk: Rob, the details of the extent of budget cuts are beginning to emerge and one of the departments hardest hit is the Department of Public Health and Human Services. An appropriation subcommittee is recommending over twice the amount of cuts Governor Bullock recommends - $93 million dollars in total. That's a lot of money.

Rob Saldin: Bullock had already proposed a $19 million cut and that would've actually meant about a $40 million cut overall because you loose matching funds from the federal government and so, right, as you say, basically the Republican-controlled appropriations subcommittee had suggested here is doubling the cut proposed by Bullock, which of course then also would increase the forfeited matching funds from Washington. So, all told, that'd be about an 18 percent cut, and of course that kind of a cut is something, something is going to be felt by people. One segment of the population that would be hit the hardest here are seniors requiring long term care. That is, help with basic activities of daily living. Things like eating and getting dressed. Now, Republicans of course counter that given the budget situation, tough cuts need to be made and you can't except the Department of Public Health and Human Services, it makes up 25 percent of the total state budget, so you can't just cut in other places. Every place is going to have to take a little bit of a hit.

SM: Well, the head of the department, Sheila Hogan, describes the impact as being on the most vulnerable citizens of Montana, as you mentioned, the elderly, low income kids would be affected, she basically says it puts them at risk, is how she put it.

RS: Sure, yeah, I mean, with a cut that large, that will be felt. There is no way around it.

SM: Meanwhile, Chuck, Republicans and the governor are fighting over whose to blame for all these budget woes and Republicans like Hamilton representative Ron Ehli blame the governor:

"Montana elected Republican majorities in both houses. We owe it to our communities and our neighbors, we owe it to our children, to steer this budget and steer this ship around and to go a different direction from where it is going to now," Ehli said.

SM: And that's not, Chuck, the direction the governor wants to go.

Chuck Johnson: That's correct. It kind of boils down to how each side would balance the budget and governor Bullock would do it with a combination of some spending cuts, some new taxes and tax increases, and some funding transfers — shifting money from one fund into the general fund. One fund or another. Republicans do not like the idea of the tax increases at all, so so far they are looking at budget cuts, although they have said in subcommittees that this is just the starting point, that they'll build the budgets back up from there. And a big issue is well, the governor again wants to keep a $300 million, ending fund balance, rainy-day fund some call it, to protect the state against emergencies and he insists on that last session. The problem would probably be much worse much worse had he not done that.

SM: And Republicans fought that last session. They thought that rainy day fund was too exorbitant. Turns out it was not.

CJ: Republicans don't like to see the state keep a big pot of money like that. They want the money to go back to people in the form of tax rebates or lower taxes. Governor Bullock, like Governor Schweitzer, has insisted on keeping a balance of that amount. And so far has prevailed.

SM: Well, the governor's Budget Director Dan Villa doesn't think the budget's in as bad of a shape as Republicans are portraying:

"What I think Montanans need to know is that our budget is strong, our fiscal health is sound, and that the talking points which may be politically expedient do not reflect what our budget is," Villa said.

SM: Rob, it can be argued that Montana is better off than many other states, if you do that comparison.

RS: For sure. I think, to some degree, people are talking past each other on this. It's certainly true that the budget situation is a challenge as we keep hearing. But it's also worth keeping things in perspective and despite all the doom and gloom, Montana's actually in relatively good position compared to other states. We're not in anything like the kind of situation that places like Illinois and Kansas find themselves in. The fact of the matter is, revenues were down in most states. So this isn't some weird affliction unique to us. And because of that $300 million rainy day fund from the last session we're in a stronger position to deal with the shortfalls then were a lot of other states. Now, that said, we did just squeak by, but still it could be worse, and, in fact, in a lot of other places it is much worse.

SM: Rob, this week Congress took the first steps to repeal Obamacareand the Montana Legislature is trying to plan for that eventuality as best they can. And Republican Senate Majority leader Fred Thomas is forming a bipartisan working group to figure out how best to respond when the Affordable Care Act is repealed. But this ain't gonna be easy.

RS: Right, and the big problem is that nobody knows exactly what's going to happen at the national level on this. There are all kinds of contradictory signals coming from President Elect Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress. Clearly they've committed to doing something, but will that be a complete repeal or something more modest that keeps parts of the law in place while still allowing them to declare victory? And then, another big question is what kind of replacement, if any, will be forthcoming? What we do know is that repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act has a potential to affect a lot of peopleas well as the state budget, so the idea behind this working group is to try and get out in front of this and have some plan in place and ready to go depending on what happens in Washington. But of course on some level, it's hard to do that if you don't know what's coming down the pipe. Another interesting aspect of this is that this working group is supposed to be bipartisan. It'll be interesting to see if that works and whether people with very different views on the Affordable Care Act and health care more generally can come to any kind of consensus.

SM: And Montana is also hampered on this, isn't it, by the fact that our Legislature only meets every two years? It seems like this might call for a special session down the road.

CJ: Well, what the Republican leaders of the House and Senate are talking about is finishing early and saving some days, so if they finished in 70 days they'd have 20 more days to work without having to call a special session, so that's what they're talking about right now.

SM: Chuck, Republican Senate President Scott Sales announced this week that senators are just too busy to attend the traditional state of the judiciary speech that the Chief Justice always gives to a joint session of the House and Senate:

"One of our goals is to get done in a timely fashion and it takes quite a bit of time away from our work that we're definitely attending the state of the state address for the governor but these other ones we felt like our time could be better served working on bills and getting our work done in the senate," Sales said.

SM: And this prompted chief justice Mike McGrath to cancel his speech. He doesn't want to talk to the House either if the Senate isn't going to be there.

CJ: Yes, he canceled his speech, and this came after he was invited by President Sales and Speaker Knudsen earlier in the session, and then Sales sent him a letter saying, 'No, Senate won't be a part of it.' Then McGrath sent the Speaker a note saying, 'well, I'm not going to do it then.' What the Senate plans to do instead of hearing these speeches is open the old Supreme Court premises for these speakers to come and talk to senators if they wish to go hear them over the noon hour. And I'm guessing there won't be great crowds at those. These speeches have been a tradition. There has been some add-up over time, but it's been largely the congressional delegation, the two senators and the House members and the Supreme Court chief justice and the superintendent of Public Instruction speaks on the state of education, and then the tribal leaders pick one of their own to speak. These are all going to continue. The House speaker thinks they're worthwhile, he told me, that yeah there is some pomp and circumstances but he thinks its good for the members to hear from these people about the issues they are raising so the House will continue it. They don't take a whole lot of time, maybe a half hour or 45 minutes. Knudsen did say they are asking that people limit their talks to 20 minutes.

SM: It is a chance for these different areas to make some points that they might want to make with the Legislature and have the attention of the whole state.

CJ: Mike McGrath, the chief justice, said he thought these fostered open lines of communication and fostered cooperation so he was disappointed it wasn't going to happen. I got a comment from Senator Tester, and he's a former Senate president, and he said he was disappointed. He said it was a good chance to talk about issues with his counterparts on the state level.

SM: Finally, Rob, Congressman Zinke will have his confirmation hearing to become Secretary of the Interior this coming week and if all goes as planned he could be confirmed later this month, prompting Governor Bullock to call a special election for his successor, and the latest candidate rumored to be strongly considering joining the race is Republican Greg Gianforte, who of course lost the governor's race to Steve Bullock and he would have to be the front-runner if he enters.

RS: For sure. You knew he was going to be a formidable candidate if he decided to jump in. He just ran a high profile, statewide race that took him all over Montana. The reason that's so important is because when you're traveling all over the place you're meeting with these key Republican leaders across the state. So, he was able to develop a statewide network that the other Republicans candidates, who were mostly state legislators, can't come close to matching. As we discussed last week, it's these party leaders across the state who are going to be picking the candidate in a party convention. It's not a primary. And a number of these people have apparently already lined up behind Gianforte, and it suggests to me that he was effective going around the state and getting support in his run for governor and that that has been able to carry on, that the Republican leaders from across the state ... they like him, think he deserves another shot, and are lining up behind him. And if that's true, he'll get the Republican nomination and will probably be a big favorite to win.

SM: On the Democratic side, another name that's being mentioned is Zeno Baucus, who is former senator Max Baucus's son. He would be a political newcomer but would certainly bring a lot of heavy political lineage to the race.

RS: Zeno Baucus isn't necessarily well known around the state but the Baucus name certainly is. Whether you like it or not, that is very important when it comes to elections. Max Baucus was a towering figure in Montana politics for nearly four decades and there are many examples of family members of prominent politicians having success, like Zeno is apparently considering. So in a race where Republicans would otherwise be strongly favored to win, tapping someone named Baucus could be the Democrats best chance of capturing this seat. Again, I would point to the method for selecting the nominee. It's going to be important, it's going to be a convention of party leaders from across the state who are going to be picking these candidates and a lot of Democratic party activists. The kind of people that will be picking the nominee, they got their start in politics as part of Baucus world. Of course, Baucus has been off the scene for a few years so it's not entirely clear how strong that network is at this point but even so, a lot of Democrats in this state are very fond of, and feel indebted to, Max Baucus, so that would certainly help his son. Maybe one other thing worth noting is that within the Democratic Party in Montana there is no love lost between Baucus people on one hand and Brian Schweitzer people on the other and that split goes back a long ways. It was often bitter. Baucus and Schweitzer developed their own personal followings within the party and there wasn't much overlap. You were either a Baucus person or a Schweitzer person. Now, as we discussed last week, Schweitzer has already endorsed a candidate in Rob Quist so if Baucus does get in, we might be looking at another proxy showdown within the Democratic Party between the Baucus wing and the Schweitzer wing of the party. But the bottom line is this - it's actually conceivable that Baucus could win this thing? The other possibilities, it's hard to see.

SM: And Max Baucus will be out of a job pretty quickly. He's ambassador to China right now and that term is ending when the new president is sworn in so he could come back and conceivably campaign for his son. That would be interesting as well.

You've been listening to "Capitol Talk" with Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson, and Rob Saldin.

"Capitol Talk" is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR Senior News Analyst Sally Mauk is joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.

Tune in to "Capitol Talk" online, or on your radio at 6:35 p.m. every Friday during the session, and again on Sunday at 11:00 a.m.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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