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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Capitol Talk': State Budget Battles, Bikes, Healthcare & The House Race

"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.
"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.

Sally Mauk, Chuck Johnson and Rob Saldin review the legislature's busy week as the state budget heads out of the House and on to the Senate. They also discuss how the debate over healthcare and the Trump administration's proposed federal budget is affecting Montana's upcoming special election in May.

Sally Mauk: Welcome to "Capitol Talk" our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by veteran Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and University of Montana Political Science Professor Rob Saldin.

Chuck, the House this week passed HB-2, the main budget bill on to the Senate, but not before Democrats tried several times to add more money to the bill. And each time that effort failed along party line votes.

Chuck Johnson: Yeah, make that 25 times, Sally. There were 25 Democratic amendments and none passed, most were defeated by a straight party-line vote of 59-41 with Republicans against. And then on a couple of them, one or two Republicans voted with the Democrats, but none was in serious danger of passing. It was pretty emotional. A number of legislators stood up and told what the consequences of some of the budget decisions would mean, but there was no persuading the majority which had a budget it liked and wanted to proceed with.

SM: Republican budget chair Nancy Ballance accused Democrats of "political theater" in bringing their amendments:

"So, unless there is another package of amendments that we haven't seen yet that makes cuts in other programs or serves to pay for these amendments, then this is simply political theater with no basis in reality, and simply an exercise for the media."

SM: Missoula Democrat Bryce Bennett took offense:

"Advocating for programs that make a real difference in the lives of the people in my district and in all of our districts is not political theater. And sharing stories of the people back home who are scared because of what we have done here is not political theater. And I can handle an insult, but I don't think the people of Montana can handle what we have left for this budget."

SM: He says people back home are scared, Chuck.

CJ: I think he's particularly referring to folks that are in programs involving public health and human services, including senior long-term care, care of the disabled, nursing homes, home healthcare, and those. And that was what he had talked about earlier, he offered a couple of amendments and also he offered an amendment trying to set up a rainy-day fund for the Board of Regents to kind of loan out as needed to universities that are struggling financially. That failed as well. In fairness, Ballance is right that Democrats didn't propose other cuts to make up the difference in their amendments. However they did talk a lot about either tabled or future revenue increasing, tax increase bills, that they have in the works; ones that would tax wealthier individuals at a higher income tax rate, one that would go after different things like that. Although in fairness, I don't think any of those really have too much chance. Maybe the cigarette tax increase does. But anyway, it was a lively debate. Ballance's comment really angered Democrats, and she sort of half-apologized for it at the end, but not entirely. And I think those words were pretty hurtful to some Democrats, but it didn't make any difference in the outcome.

SM: And Chuck Republicans want to make the point that the budget that they've send to the Senate is actually higher — spends more money than the last state budget that the Legislature passed. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

CJ: That is correct. The total funds are greater than what was appropriated two years ago. Total funds include federal and a number of other funds. In terms of the state general fund, which is tax money that Montanans pay into the budget, it's slightly less than what Governor Bullock put in, what he proposed in the fall. So they're both right in a way, but there's a lot of differences in between in what the Republican budget looks like now, and what Bullock put in in the fall. I'd remind listeners that it's early in the session, the budget will change many times before the end.

SM: Right, the Senate still has to weigh in, and then the governor of course.

CJ: I would just say, that I believe every session I've covered, the Senate has added money to the budget that the House has approved, no matter which parties are in control of which houses. Everyone expects the Senate to add money, and they're expected to get an updated revenue report at the end of next week that is expect to show there may be $90 or $100 million of additional revenue than what was projected earlier. The budget could be in better shape a week from now.

SM: So if you're one of the Montanans who's scared, it's a little premature maybe.

CJ: Absolutely.

SM: Rob, in the U.S. House Race, Democrat Rob Quist is trying to make as much hay as he can about President Trump's proposed budget and his proposed healthcare plan that is also supported by the Republican leadership, both of which would negatively impact a lot of Montanans.

Rob Saldin: Right, he his trying to make a lot out of it, and I think nationally you see that Republicans are — for sure in the instance of healthcare — discovering that it's easier to oppose something than it is to be responsible for passing something coherent. And that does have the potential to maybe trickle down into this special election. Gianforte though, for his part, he has been going around saying that Quist is farther to the left on healthcare than Barack Obama, and I think that could be very effective as well. It's a true statement.

Quist has endorsed a Medicare for all, single-payer approach to health reform. What Obamacare did by contrast was essentially double down on our system of private health insurance. That private approach of course, is supplemented by these large government programs for the elderly and the poor, but its foundation is private insurance usually provided to employees from their employers. And by embracing that model of health insurance, Obamacare rejected, in a way, the old liberal dream of universal government provided healthcare that had been championed for decades and decades staring with Harry Truman up through Ted Kennedy and so on. And that older vision is what Quist has endorsed.

The basic concept of Obamacare was actually initially developed at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative Washington think tank. It had been adopted by Republican Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. So when President Obama and congressional Democrats used that same basic model, they were actually taking a conservative approach to achieve a progressive goal of covering more people. Now we see Republicans in Washington trying to repeal and replace Obamacare, and as you suggest, one of the real takeaways this week from that disastrous analysis from the Congressional Budget Office is that we see that basically Trumpcare or Ryancare as the replacement bill is being called, it's going to hurt a lot of President Trump's core constituency. So, certainly Quist is going to make as much of this as he can. Is it going to have a big effect on this special election? Well I think it could, but probably not as much as we might think.

There's no doubt Republicans are in a tough spot, but one of the things that political science research has demonstrated again and again is how strong partisan attachments are. For most people when we're confronted with information that seemingly undermines our dispositions, we either ignore it, or we explain it away by, for instance rationalizing that the source is biased or something like this. So, it's important to note that this is just the way we as people are kind of hard wired to process information. So is this going to have as much as an effect on people here in Montana evaluating the candidates in this election as some might expect? Well, usually these things don't. And of course, it's complicated by the fact that healthcare is so complicated.

There was a poll just about a month ago, for instance, that showed people really do not like Obamacare. They want to get rid of it. But they do like the Affordable Care Act. Now of course those are the exact same things, right? We're dealing with a situation where there's a great deal of confusion and where people have hardened opinions that track with partisanship and ideology. So we might see less of a shift than you'd expect.

SM: Greg Gianforte, the Republican in the race is perhaps calculating that being somewhat quiet on the Republican proposal that's out there -- which he has been up to now -- is a savvy political thing to do. But he has got a second TV ad on the air. Lets listen to that:

SM: Rob, is there a mixed message coming from the Gianforte campaign. On the one hand, he's embraced the Trump administration and President Trump. And on the other hand he's saying in this ad that D.C. is declaring war on the west. Can you have it both ways.

RS: It seems to echo some of his ads from last fall, and I think those made a little bit more sense because of course you had a Democratic administration. So, yes, it is a little bit odd to have embraced President Trump so forcefully, and yet also be talking about a war on the west. Typically when people use that kind of rhetoric they're talking about the administration. In a way you could say maybe Gianforte is confronting the same thing we were talking about earlier with regard to the Trump budget and the repeal and replace effort. It's easier to run against something, to be opposed to something, than it is to be for it. But yeah, it's a little bit strange. On the other hand, a lot of Gianforte's big themes come out in that ad. Certainly pushing back on federal regulations, that has always been a core message dating back to his first run for governor. The one thing that's a little bit new -- we've talked about it in the past, I won't go into it much -- the trade deals. All of a sudden these trade deals are the worst thing in the world. That's really not something we heard from Gianforte in the fall, and it goes against a lot of — decades of — Republican thinking on trade.

SM: The visual in this add does give him a chance though to stride across the field in his camo with the gun slung over his shoulder. The classic Montana political ad, right?

RS: You've got to do that. You've got to do that.

SM: Chuck, back at the Legislature, two bills this week lead to some heated discussion: one was a bill that would've provided funding for firefighters who contract a work-related lung disease like cancer, and one would've required drivers to keep a safe distance from bicyclists, and both those bills went down. But to Republican Senate President Scott Sales was blunt about why he opposed the bill to give bicyclists safe room on roads and highways:

“They’re some of the rudest people I’ve ever — I hate to say it, but I’m just going to be bold — they’re some of the most self-centered people navigating on highways, or on county roads I’ve ever seen. They won’t move over. You can honk at them; they think they own the highway.”

SM: Chuck he even went so far as to say he doesn't want any more cyclists in Montana, offending not just people who ride bicycles, but also businesses that benefit from Montana's increasing bicycle tourism. This is something that not only angered bicyclists, but it could have an economic impact. What do you think?

CJ: These comments I'm sure have gone nationwide if not worldwide in biking circles in publications and emails and the like. We had a similar thing to this back in the early '90s when a state senator from Billilngs named Al Bishop made some pretty outrageous comments about gays and lesbians. So outrageous that there were efforts by groups representing gays and lesbians to call Governor Racicot's office and promise they would never come to Montana again to visit on a vacation. And the calls just came in by the droves day after day. I remember going over to the state law library and going on NexisLexis and those comments went world-wide, front page in the San Francisco paper, London Times, that sort of thing. Finally, Bishop was dragged, kind of kicking and screaming to make a half apology saying anyone who was offended by those comments, I'm sorry, but it did a lot of damage to Montana's tourism business, at least temporarily. I would think Sales' comments wouldn't have gone unnoticed by national biking groups and other groups like that.

SM: Well we'll wait and see what the fallout is. I occasionally ride a bicycle and I just want to say there are plenty of rude drivers on Montana's streets and highways too.

"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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