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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

I-185 Fails, But Medicaid Expansion Still Possible, Lawmaker Says

Ads about I-185 from Montanans Against Tax Hikes and Healthy Montana.
Montana Public Radio
Ads about I-185 from Montanans Against Tax Hikes and Healthy Montana.

With nearly all Montana precincts reporting, 53 percent of voters opposed a proposal to increase the state’s tobacco tax.  Forty-seven percent supported it.

I-185 was the single most expensive ballot initiative in Montana history. Final fundraising tallies aren’t in yet, but tobacco companies poured more than $17 million into Montana this election season to defeat Initiative-185. That’s more than twice as much cash as the initiative’s supporters were able to muster. Most of that money came from the Montana Hospital Association.

Dr. Jason Cohen is Chief Medical Officer of North Valley Hospital in Whitefish.

“I’m definitely disappointed that big-money can have such an outsized influence on our political process,”  Cohen says.

I-185 would have tacked an additional $2 per-pack tax on cigarettes. It would have also taxed other tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, which are currently not taxed in Montana. Part of that $74 million in tax revenue would have funded continuation of Medicaid expansion in Montana. Unless state lawmakers vote to continue Medicaid expansion, it’s set to expire next year.

Here’s what Governor Steve Bullock told the Montana Association of Counties back in September.

“If I-185 fails to pass the ballot initiative, we’re going to be in for a tough [2019 legislative] session. Because iIf you thought cuts from last special session were difficult, I think you should brace, unfortunately, for even more.” 

Republican State Representative Nancy Ballance opposed 185, but was not on the tobacco companies’ payroll. She disagrees with Bullock’s position.

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-HD 87.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
Montana Public Radio
Hamilton Republican Nancy Ballance chairs the Legislative Finance Committee.

“I think one of the mistakes that was made continually with I-185 was the belief that there were only two options: if it failed, Medicaid expansion would go away; if it passed, Medicaid expansion would continue forever as it was.” 

Ballance says Medicaid expansion can be tweaked without resorting to such a sweeping new tax on tobacco products.

“No one was willing to talk about a middle-ground solution where Medicaid expansion is adjusted to correct some of the things that we saw as issues or deficiencies in that program. I think now is the time to roll up our sleeves and come up with a solution that takes both sides into consideration.”

Ballance suspects that if 185 had passed, it would have immediately faced a court challenge.

Whitefish doctor, Jason Cohen, hopes Montana one day passes a tobacco tax.

“We all know how devastating tobacco is to our families, our friends and our communities," Cohen says. "And I think we also all know how important having insurance coverage is, and so I think people are dedicated to fighting this battle and winning it."

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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