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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Capitol Talk': Medicaid Expansion, Colstrip Bill, Hanna's Act Survive; Preschool Funding Killed

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.
'Capitol Talk': MTPR's Weekly Legislative Analysis Program

It's been a busy week at the Montana Legislature. Medicaid expansion and a bill to help NorthWestern Energy acquire more coal are still alive; A bill to fund preschool education is killed; And a bill to help find missing and murdered Native American women is passed, then killed, then revived. Learn more now on Capitol Talk with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.

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 Rob Saldin and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels.

And Holly, a compromise and heavily-amended bill to continue Medicaid expansion is passing the House, but a federal court ruling striking down similar legislation in Kentucky and Arkansas over work requirements is casting a long shadow, isn't it, over Montana's attempt to pass a law with those requirements?

Holly Michels: It is. So, a U.S. district court judge in Washington D.C. who struck down those work requirements said that the federal government, when opening up the opportunity for those specific states and their requirements, they didn't adequately consider how many people would lose coverage under the work requirements. Arkansas has often been held up as an example this session from people in Montana who oppose adding work requirements to our program. Some studies have actually been done comparing what's proposed under Republican Rep. Ed Buttery's bill to Arkansas's plan, and those studies have shown that about half the people here covered would lose that coverage if we were to enact work requirements.

Buttrey's bill was pretty heavily amended Tuesday when it cleared the House Human Services Committee. One of the biggest changes that was made — and this was one of the more important changes to Democrats — is that it got rid of a clause in the bill that would have ended the entire expansion program in Montana if a court found work requirements invalid. That section was replaced with a provision that if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down work requirements Montana's program would continue but without work requirements until 2025, which would give lawmakers another opportunity to come back and look at the program and decide to continue it then. Buttrey he said he chose that timeframe because that's about when the Supreme Court case expected to come from the Kentucky challenge might be finalized or finally decided. So he would know sort of the lay of the land by that point.

Mauk: And if those work requirements were dropped because of however the Supreme Court ruled, it would basically be the bill that Democrats wanted, right?

Michels: It would be the bill that Democrats originally proposed. [The] Democratic Bill was the first one proposed this session to continue expansion. It would have done it pretty much in its current form. It would have added some ways to pay for the state's share the program, and also beefed up money for a voluntary workforce development program. That bill was defeated Tuesday in committee.

Mauk: The bill that's being passed by the House has the support of a handful of Republicans joining with Democrats. But a lot of Republicans, like Rep. Forest Mandeville, are not comfortable with all the last minute changes.

"Agree or disagree with Medicaid expansion. We're still talking about nearly a 100,000 people, and we're impacting a very important part of their lives. And I'm not comfortable with a, basically, a substitute bill that hasn't gone through the process that we've had for the bill before amended. I'm just not sure what the impact is going to be."

Mauk: And he is not the only one, Holly, uncertain about the impact, given the many last minute amendments.

Michels: Yeah, we heard this a lot in the committee on Tuesday and then on the House floor Friday. It's from Republicans who, you know, most likely weren't going to vote for expansion anyway, but they cited frustration that the bill's had a lot of changes. Kept hearing on the House floor Friday, 85 changes were made in a single amendment Buttery brought to the bill. That's sort of saying that this bill has dramatically changed from its first hearing. We actually saw an effort on Tuesday to have another hearing entirely for the bill, but that didn't go forward.

We are under a deadline to move the expansion bill over to the Senate by April 1. There were also some claims on the House floor Friday thrown at Buttery that he cut backroom deals or crafted this bill in the shadows. But he was pretty adamant in denying that. The bill did come pretty late in the session. It didn't have a hearing until March 16. The fiscal note wasn't even available at that hearing, and the fiscal note we have now probably is out of date because of all the changes Buttrey made. So there's still a lot in play. The bill was heading to House Appropriations Committee Friday. And again, it does need to clear the House by Monday.

Mauk: Rob, another controversial bill to fund preschool education appears to have died in committee this week. And this was a pet proposal of Governor Bullock's, and he got some Republican support with a compromise that would have included funding for some private preschool programs. But it still didn't pass.

Rob Saldin: Yeah exactly. You know, just a little background. Montana's one of only a handful of states that doesn't have public funding for preschool. It's been one of Bullock's top priorities, you know, not just this session but throughout his time as governor. And two years ago the Legislature passed a temporary pilot program but that's expiring, so this session the governor and some legislators were hoping to establish a permanent program. We've actually seen two attempts to get this done. The first proposal — which was basically just the governor's proposal — that came from Democrat Casey Schreiner; that got shot down earlier. The second one was voted-down in committee this week. It came from Eric Moore, a Republican. And as you suggest Sally, I think short of some last-minute miracle, that means preschool funding is dead for this session.

The interesting thing here to me is that it seems like there was definitely a majority of legislators open to supporting a permanent preschool program. But this was a case where the devil was really in the details. Basically this all fell apart, I think, because of the main divide that makes education policy contentious across the country. And the basic points of polarization in education policy are over funding for private schools and charter schools and the role of teachers unions. And speaking very generally, Republicans tend to advocate for what they call school choice, which means taking some public funds to support, not only traditional public education, but also private education; charter schools, homeschooling. Republicans also tend to be skeptical of teachers unions which they see as being too powerful and dictating education policy and focusing purely on defending the interests of teachers — even the very worst teachers — rather than focusing on what's best for kids. And then Democrats on the other side, again, kind of speaking broadly, but they tend to defend traditional public education and defend teachers unions, and they see the whole concept of school choice as a direct threat to public education because it takes money that should be going to public schools and sends it elsewhere. And so they say, 'look, how in practice can that not hurt public education?' So in practice it's, of course, a little bit more nuanced than that, especially on the Democratic side. But that's the basic dynamic.

Mauk: Here's how Governor Bullock described his disappointment.

"Thousands of four year olds and their families will go without preschool, all because of petty politics and special interests that no longer represent the best interests of our youngest Montanans. I'm not just deeply disappointed, I'm disgusted."

He's referring, Rob, the special interests here are the teachers union who objected to the inclusion of private schools.

And here's union president Eric Feaver.

"And so, you the taxpayer and I the taxpayer would pay for that opportunity to privatize what is a public responsibility, a public institution."

And this is the same union, Rob, that has long supported Governor Bullock; a natural ally of his, and they're butting heads over this.

Saldin: Yeah, butting heads big time. I mean it's pretty remarkable. All of this is a microcosm of the national debate, right? What happened here is that the teachers union and some Democrats insisted that the money for this preschool program be used exclusively for public preschools. But then you have some Republicans insisting that they won't support public preschool funding at all unless some of those dollars were accessible by private schools. Bullock was entirely fine with either approach. He might have preferred the Democratic bill a little bit more than Moore's bill, but he was totally fine with either one, and saw those differences as being, you know, minor details in the big picture of this thing. But at the end of the day there were just enough legislators who took a hard-line approach on one side or the other, right? Either insisting that funding had to be available to private schools or that it couldn't be available to private schools. That there just wasn't a majority for either of the legislative vehicles to get a bill to the governor, even though there was, I think, a majority for the basic concept of public funding for preschool.

Mauk: Another bill, Holly, that appeared dead but now appears to be — at least as of this taping — appears to be revived is Hanna's Act, which would have created a specialist within the state Justice Department to deal with the investigations of missing persons, many of whom are Native American women. And this bill appeared to have broad support but was killed in committee on a tie vote before being resurrected. What's going on there?

Michels: This bill cleared the House on a 99 - 0 vote, and then was defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That was started by Senator Jennifer Fielder who's a Republican from Thompson Falls. She voiced a lot of opposition to the bill in committee. She said that she thinks tribal governments have extensive resources and should help finance a position that was proposed in the bill to create a missing persons specialist within the Department of Justice. The funding for that was $100,000, had actually been stripped out of the bill by that point. And the Department of Justice said that they could have created that position with existing resources. Fielder revived the bill on Friday and she brought an amendment to it that changes a part of it. Instead of requiring the Department of Justice to make that position, it just says they may create that specialist job.

The intent of that position is to help when people go missing in Montana. It's looking specifically at reservations in Native communities where a lot of times there's not good communication. You have tribal law enforcement, you might have county Sheriff's Office, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the FBI; and it's hard to get communication between all those different agencies when someone goes missing. So this position would hopefully go in and kind of help ease that so when women like Hanna Harris go missing — she was missing for several days before she was found — there's a missing persons report taken more quickly. Hanna's mother actually testified on the bill earlier this session, that she struggled to get someone to start looking for her daughter.

Mauk: Some of the opposition, Holly — correct me if I'm wrong — seem to label this bill as a tribal issue, not something that the state should have to deal with, which is an odd approach at best because it surely is an issue that every Montanan should care about.

Michels: There was pretty strong agreement before this committee hearing that missing and murdered native women in Montana is an epidemic. There is a misconception that tribes and tribal governments are flush with money. Pretty common false beliefs that Native Americans get special benefits or monthly checks just for being native. Also false assumptions about how much, maybe, tribal gaming generates for tribes. There's also a lot of underfunded treaty obligations. One of the biggest examples of that is Indian Health Services which is chronically underfunded. Spending time on reservations and reporting on them around the state, you can see there's a real financial disparity in those communities. Another important thing to remember is that not all Native Americans in Montana live on reservations or in an area where tribal government would have authority. So this really isn't just a tribal government or tribal area issue In Montana.

Mauk: Rob, the so-called Save Colstrip Bill is passing in the Senate. And this is the bill we've discussed before that would have ratepayers pick up some of the costs of NorthWestern Energy buying more Colstrip coal. And that would be done without regulatory oversight. And Colstrip Republican Dwayne Ankney, he's more worried about the workers in his home town than perhaps ratepayers.

"That keeps 350 power plant workers working. And it keeps about the same number of miners working," Ankney said.

Although, Rob, there's nothing in the bill that guarantees that outcome.

Saldin: There is no guarantee. I think what's motivating Ankney here is that it's a better situation than they're in currently, right? So, no guarantee, but it does provide a little bit more reassurance that those jobs will be around a little bit longer than they might otherwise. And that, as far as I'm concerned, is an entirely reasonable argument for someone representing that community to make. Those are his people, he wants to protect them. Fair enough.

The argument that is getting a little bit more pushback, I think, is the one being made by proponents who are saying that this is a good deal for consumers. A lot of critics are starting to raise questions about that, right? And some of these questions would be things like, well if this is really such an awesome deal why doesn't NorthWestern Energy just buy Colstrip Four through the usual process? Why do they need this guarantee that they get to evade the usual regulatory processes that protects consumers? And more broadly, if Colstrip Four is so fantastic, well why is the current owner looking to sell its portion for one dollar, and why are utilities all over the country running away from coal-based energy as quickly as they can?

Mauk: I think that NorthWestern Energy company pushback on that, Rob, though, would be that the coal resource is still the cheapest resource for them to acquire if they get in a bind and have a shortage of power.

Saldin: They say look, renewables are great but we run into this problem that, what happens when the wind isn't blowing, and what happens when the sun isn't shining. The one problem, again, that critics would point out and that we've mentioned before is that coal is just no longer a great bargain that it once was.

Mauk: Push really comes to shove in this last month of the session, so we're going to have a lot to talk about yet.

You've been listening to 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.

Holly, Rob; thanks and we'll reconvene 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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