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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Capitol Talk: Lawmakers Talk Blast Rules, Border Walls And Medicaid Expansion

'Capitol Talk' is MTPR's weekly legislative analysis program.
Montana Public Radio
Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative analysis program.

The Montana Legislature is now back in session. Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels review week 1 and look at compromises that make it more difficult to kill bills in committee, the outlook for cross-party alliances, and a controversial proposal that would have Montana help fund a wall along the Mexican border.

Sally Mauk: Welcome to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin, and Lee Newspaper Capitol Reporter Holly Michels.

And Holly, one of the actions this first week of the Legislature had to do with process rather than policy. And that was a change to the House rules that will make it harder for bills to languish and die in committee, as many bills did in the last session. What are the changes, and are they meaningful?

Holly Michels: So this is a rules debate that went public before the session even started. Before the session started, a lot of the debate was around changing the supermajority that it takes to do what's called "blasting" bills out of committee. That's when a the bill's being killed off in committee but lawmakers want to bring it back to life on the House floor. That number's been 60 votes in the house for decades. A group of Republicans called "the solutions caucus" have been advocating for 51 votes. By Monday of this week they had struck a compromise to change that to 58 votes. That was, going into this session, kind of the main focus of the change. But on Monday it sort of appeared that another major part of the change is the ability to change out committee assignments and where bills are sent on committees with just a 51 vote majority. So that sort of has become a main talking point for Republicans that they think is one of the biggest changes.

SM: Here's how Great Falls Republican Ed Buttrey described the effect of the new rules.

"We've ensured that the voice of every Montanan has a chance to be heard."

SM: And that's maybe a little bit of hyperbole, Holly, but still it's true that all of these bills will be heard in committee, and that's a change.

HM: Yep, that is a big change. Before, committee chairs could just choose not to bring up a bill, which would not have that public hearing where Montanans from around the state can come and talk about why they want to see the legislation passed or not. So that's a pretty significant change.

SM: Well Democrats like Casey Schreiner of Great Falls were pleased enough with the changes.

"While we didn't get everything, we also got more than we've ever gotten. And they're the most protective rules for the minority that actually represents the will of the people in Montana.

SM: And they probably were never, Holly, going to get the change they really wanted, which was the 51 versus 58 votes to get a bill out of committee.

HM: Yeah, the rules did pass in the House 88 to 12. So there was some Democratic support for them. There was a little bit of Democrats saying they felt the 58 vote majority was a political move because it is tied to the Republican majority in the House which is 58 to 42 Democrats. But I think generally, they're happy to see the changes.

SM: Rob, this early negotiation of House rules illustrates, I think, a dynamic that's likely to dominate the outcome of most of the important issues of the session. And that is how well so-called moderate Republicans — what they call themselves, "the solutions caucus" — how they're going to work with more conservative Republicans or with Democrats to get bills passed.

Rob Saldin: Yeah exactly Sally. This has really been a defining feature of recent legislative sessions. The basic, and I would say somewhat oversimplified story, is that the Republicans in Helena are divided between the moderates and the conservatives. The conservative bloc is bigger and is therefore able to dictate who gets into key leadership positions like speaker of the House, because those posts are elected just within the majority party caucus. But when you move to the full House chamber and bring the Democrats into the mix, the dynamic totally changes. Because if those moderate Republicans link up with the Democrats then all of a sudden you have a majority, and the Conservatives are left out in the cold. And in fact, it's that alliance of Democrats and the so-called moderate Republicans that was effective in passing key pieces of legislation in recent sessions, including the Medicaid expansion bill back in 2015, and these rules changes. I mean, to me the big takeaway is that it does perhaps make that cross-party alliance a little bit easier than it has been in the past.

SM: Well we're going to see how that plays out throughout the session.

Holly, Senate President Scott Sales wants the Legislature to give $8 million to the federal government to help build President Trump's wall on the Mexican border. And that proposal is already being roundly criticized by Democrats and faces a certain veto byGov. Steve Bullock if it did pass.

HM: Governor Steve Bullock typically tells the media that he doesn't comment on pending legislation, but during some press availability time this week he made it pretty clear that it's not something he would support. He turned the conversation to say that he sees Montana as having infrastructure needs within the state that aren't being met. The Legislature's not passed an infrastructure bill for several sessions now, and Bullock has also vetoed one several sessions ago. So Bullock and Democrats are trying to turn the conversation to there's needs in the state that haven't been met. Senator Sales is arguing for it saying that Montana's got a lot of cost in illegal immigration. He's looking at benefit programs, medical care and court costs. So that's his argument. He's also bringing a resolution in support of the wall which is not something that the governor could veto if that were to pass.

SM: Rob, someone tweeted when they saw the headline, "Eight Million Dollars Requested to Protect Southern Border" — someone wondered what Wyoming had done to upset Montana.

RS: Well it's perhaps worth noting that Sales isn't the only one thinking about this kind of thing in the country. The South Dakota Legislature is considering a resolution of support for the wall and I wouldn't be surprised if other Trump-friendly states follow suit with similar gestures. The notable thing here is that Sales, if we take his proposal at face value, wants to go a step further and actually send Montana money to the wall. And that to me, it seems like, hasn't been received very well, not only by Governor Bullock but in other quarters as well.

And it seems questionable to me on two levels. First, and this is totally regardless of whether you like the wall or don't like it, it's just not the role of Montana's state Legislature to send money down to Southern California and the other border states to pay for a wall. That's Congress's job to decide whether to fund something like that or to not fund it.

The second point is that the $8 million proposed by Sales is at once both too little and too much. It's too little in the sense that it amounts to just a symbolic gesture, really, in the scope of actually building this wall. Matt Volz of the Associated Press calculated that the $8 million from Montana would fund only .3 miles of border wall. So in the grand scheme of things Sales' contribution would be, you know, basically an unnoticeable drop in the bucket. A rounding error almost. But then with regard to Montana's budget, stripping $8 million out of that, that gets noticed, right? So just to put it in perspective relative to the cost of continuing the Medicaid expansion, which everyone anticipates being a huge issue this session. That $8 million could cover almost one third of the state's anticipated annual cost of continuing the Medicaid expansion.

SM: And just to follow up, Holly, with you on this. It also goes against Republican orthodoxy to give money to the federal government. They usually rail against having to have any sort of money for Montana going to the feds. They usually argue it should stay in the state and be spent on state projects. It's an odd kind of juxtaposition. I think that what Senator Sales is proposing goes against what his party has often railed against.

HM: Yeah, and I have not had much of a chance to chat with Republicans in the Legislature about their thoughts. The ones that I have have said they want to wait to see what the draft bill — it's just a draft at this point — what the actual bill will look like, and said look to the first committee hearing and that's where you'll get an idea of thoughts on the legislation.

SM: It seems to me if there was enthusiasm for it, they would have been out front already. But we'll wait and see how that develops.

Holly, Gov. Bullock this week held a press conference to do some early lobbying for Medicaid expansion to continue. It is due to expire this summer if the Legislature doesn't provide funding to continue it. And here's the governor arguing it makes good economic sense.

"I think that it's time that we finally fully recognize the value of Medicaid expansion is as much for our Montana businesses as it is for the Montanans receiving health care."

And he's pointing out, Holly, that many businesses could not likely afford to provide the health insurance for their workers that Medicaid does.

Yeah. Since expansion passed in Montana in 2015 and the prorgram started the next year, Bullock's been sort of building a lot of different facts and figures pulled from reports that talk about the benefits of the program. I've sort of lumped those in my mind to think about it into two focuses. One's been on the health and human aspect of just 95,000 Montanans having insurance. The other's been on the economic side looking at more money in the state economy, a boost to rural hospitals. This new approach is really focusing on businesses in Montana. Statistics from the state show that about 18,000 businesses in the state have an employee covered by expansion, and Bullock's trying to show with that data, you know, those businesses would have to pay fines — businesses with more than 50 employees, if they didn't have that coverage. And those fines would be anywhere between $11 million to $16.7 million. The report also shows that the cost of covering those employees if the businesses had to do it on their own would be somewhere between $353 million to about $941 million. So really just trying to show that, you know, it's not just a social program, it's not just health insurance, it really does help businesses in this state. And I think a lot of the effort behind that is to get different entities, maybe the Montana Chamber of Commerce, groups like that onboard with the bill.

SM: Continuing Medicaid expansion has some Republicans support, for sure, but only with some changes. Here's Republican House Speaker Greg Hertz.

"We will be reviewing that throughout the legislative session and make sure that what's in place and see if we can improve it."

And he goes on to say, Holly, those improvements would include making sure the expansion funding covers only the, "most needy". And that's going to be one of the big debates, isn't is? How do you determine who's most needy and what kind of caveats are going to be put on whatever bills come out.

HM: Yes it is. Since expansion passed it's ended up covering about double the number of people that was originally predicted. So because of that, the cost of the program has been much more than was originally predicted, and that's something that Republicans want to try to look at and see what they can change this session. That would come most likely in the form of work requirements, which Representative Ed Buttrey, who's likely to introduce a bill to continue expansion also calls "community benefit requirements." Another idea would be to have assets and means testing. And there's also some talk of drug testing. Republicans think that this would help narrow the program to serve what they said and what that clip showed is the people that they say really need it most, where Democrats are concerned that it's going to kick people off coverage that they've had for, you know at this point, maybe several years now.

SM: And also concerned that to just to administer those new rules might cost the state quite a bit.

Rob, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton made news this week when he announced he is again running for governor, and for how he announced he's running.

RS: Yeah exactly Sally. Stapleton, as you say, is secretary of state. He's from Billings. Previously a state senator. He's the first big name to declare, but I think he will certainly not be the last. His time as secretary of state has had its ups and downs. He's received plenty of attention but not all of it has been positive. There have been a handful of controversies in his two years on the job. He made some pretty aggressive comments about voter fraud, for instance, that definitely rubbed some people the wrong way and that he had to eventually walk back a little. His office has also been accused of improperly awarding a couple contracts. So it hasn't been a particularly smooth ride for him as secretary of state, I would say. But he's already won statewide and has built his name recognition over the last two years.

And as you mentioned, the latest controversy we just had when he announced to run, Stapleton sent out the press release announcing his run for governor on letterhead featuring the state seal and used a state e-mail address to do it. Democrats have filed an ethics complaint with the commissioner of political practices saying that that's a violation of state law. The issue here is that elected officials aren't supposed to use state time and state resources for political and campaign activities. Stapleton says, well, it's no big deal because it wasn't campaigning, it was just making an announcement. You know strictly speaking, on the face of it it looks like Democrats have a pretty good case.

That said, some of the rhetoric from the Democrats maybe seems a little bit overheated to me. One prominent Democrat called it a, "Serious breach of the public trust," which seems maybe a little much. I just doubt that many Montanans are going to be overly scandalized by this. But it is just one more little controversy for Stapleton. And the bigger risk for him, I think, is that all of these little things kind of have a cumulative effect and he starts to get the reputation for someone who plays a little fast, a little loose, cutting corners, this kind of thing, rather than that any of these scandals are going to be a huge roadblock for him.

SM: He is the first to get in the race, but as you point out he will hardly be the last. And we will be talking about the other candidates as they announce as well.

You've been listening to the Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with University Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels. And Rob and Holly, thanks very much, I'll talk to you next week.

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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