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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Capitol Talk': Tempers Flare Over Colstrip Bill; 2020 Elections Heat Up

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

Tonight on Capitol Talk: The state budget sails through the Legislature; Gov. Bullock says he's "skeptical" about the "save Colstrip" bill; a Colstrip senator launches a vitriolic video slamming press coverage of the Colstrip bill; Attorney General Tim Fox opposes ending Obamacare; and three more candidates enter the races for governor and U.S. House. 

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 Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels.

And Holly, one of the thorniest issues of the session, the state budget, appears headed to passage and being signed by the governor. And it's almost unheard of to get a budget deal reached before the very last days of the session, which we are far from reaching. How has this happened?

Holly Michels: On Thursday, the state budget, which is House Bill 2, passed out of the Senate after just about four hours of debate. Lawmakers who've been around the Legislature a long time say that this year things are moving a lot faster than they have in sessions past. You know, we've seen the House and Senate before take up to a week each when they debate the budget. This year the House spent just today, and the Senate took just Thursday morning. There weren't even that many amendments proposed in the Senate on the floor, and just a few of those even passed. Republican Rep. Eric Moore who's from Miles City said that his take on that is that there's just not a lot to fight about this session. We're not looking at making a lot of cuts like we did in 2017. There's not an excess amount of cash out there to figure out what to do with. He called it sort of a status quo budget.

This year the Senate added just about $12 million to the budget from the version the House sent over. They're looking at things like $6 million more in the K to 12 education budget, another $2 million for the Office of Public Defender. Another amendment we saw Thursday was to take $2.5 million from money set aside that's from a tax on medical marijuana providers and use that to pay for programs in the state health department. All of those changes will now go back to the House where they'll decide if they want to accept the Senate amendments. Normally this House Bill 2 ends up going to a conference committee if the House rejects the Senate changes but that might not even happen this year since there's a lot more agreement.

We are hearing a little bit of concern from Democrats and the governor about bills they call 'cat and dog' bills. They're appropriation bills that have not passed yet but would spend a lot of money if they do. There's about $100 million worth of those bills floating around, and Gov. Steve Bullock this week started talking about in 2013 he had to veto about 20 bills after legislators left town to sort of balance the budget. And he's saying that he's trying to caution legislators -- he doesn't want to be in a similar position this year. We're still starting to also see the revenue estimates firm up to get an idea of how much money we're going to spend. Actual year-to-date collections look higher right now than they did at the same point last year. But we still have the most recent revenue estimate we're looking at, showing we might actually have a little bit money less to spend than what's expected.

Mauk: Well this is not the budget that the governor wanted but it is a budget that he has indicated he could live with, which means he's likely to sign it.

Michels: Yep, he has said that. It does have some changes right now. One big issue still yet to be settled is money that was stripped out for public preschool programs around the state. There might be an effort we see to add that back in but there's just not a lot of disagreement at this point about what's in that budget.

Mauk: The caveat, of course, is nothing is a given until they adjourn, so we will keep following that but at this point it does look like they're in agreement on the budget.

Rob, the bill to give NorthWestern Energy the ability to buy more Colstrip coal without regulatory oversight may be headed to the governor's desk soon, and he's not saying whether he will sign or veto it. But Northwestern Vice President John Hines thinks it's a good deal for consumers.

"Since NorthWestern isn't investing in anything there's really nothing to get a return on," Hines says. "But there obviously would still be these same risks. So we're trying to balance the risks for NorthWestern shareholders and customers. On the other side of the ledger, people question whether we really need this power. I would argue that it's essential for the reliable operation of our system and being able to keep the lights on during critical time periods."

Mauk: But former Public Service Commission Chairman Travis Kavulla isn't convinced, Rob, that NorthWestern needs this bill to buy more Colstrip coal.

"They buy power all the time from the open market that doesn't earn them a return," Kavulla says. "And we nevertheless expect them to buy that power to keep the lights on and to keep bills low. So, honestly, nothing about this really adds up to me."

Mauk: But it may add up to enough legislators.

Saldin: I think it's going to, Sally. One thing that stands out to me is some of these arguments don't go particularly well with one another. And that clip from Hines, I think really highlights one of the key arguments behind this legislation. NorthWestern Energy is saying that this is a big risk for the company and its shareholders, and it's because of this big risk that they need to avoid the usual regulatory process. So, okay, on its own, that argument makes sense. But then at the same time, we're also being told by supporters of the bill that this is such an amazing opportunity to buy a bigger share in Colstrip at a bargain price. Well, those arguments don't work very well together, right? If this is such a great deal and an amazing bargain NorthWestern Energy can, right now, just go hit the A.T.M. and withdraw a dollar, buy the thing, and it's all over. And so that's one issue.

Then Kavulla is pushing back on one of the other central arguments on behalf of the bill's supporters and that is that buying more of Colstrip is essential because the wind doesn't always blow, the sun doesn't always shine, and so we can't put all of our eggs into the wind and solar baskets. But Kavulla is saying, 'well that too doesn't make much sense. It's way overblown. We're in no danger of having lights go off. NorthWestern Energy can just go buy more power on the open market if it needs to, and in fact, it does so all the time.'

Mauk: Gov. Bullock was asked recently if he would sign this bill when it reaches his desk and here's what he said.

"I have skepticism, to say the least, that this bill is the best way forward," Bullock says. "I understand that there's still discussion about how it might undergo changes. So it's premature for me to, I guess, assess where I would go on a bill that had significant changes even as it went through one House and still may have significant changes going forward."

Mauk: He's skeptical, Rob, but he's not committing one way or the other.

Saldin: Yeah, I mean he's clearly not eager to jump into the middle of this. It's not a pleasant issue for him, it pits two Democratic constituencies against one another -- labor and the environmentalists -- and he was just butting heads with the unions last week over the preschool bill. He's also of course getting ready to launch a presidential campaign. So I suspect he's hoping that somehow this thing goes away but at this point that seems really unlikely. If it does reach his desk, you know, I think a lot of people look at this and say, 'well it's most likely that he vetoes it.'

The thing got very little Democratic support in the Senate. The only two Democrats to vote for it in the Senate are from Anaconda and Butte -- the traditional hub of labor in the state and the headquarters of NorthWestern Energy's Montana operation. But I do wonder if this might be a little bit of a closer call than some people think. You know, one thing that does strike me -- I mean Bullock does have a third option here: he can sign it, he can veto it or he can do nothing. In that scenario, the Bill of course still becomes law but it does so without his formal endorsement. And in a way, of course, that's a distinction without a difference. But you know, this is a tight spot for him. And if you let it become law without signing it, maybe that gives you a little bit of political cover to not have to take a stance on it one way or the other. We'll see. I think it's unclear what's going to happen.

Mauk: The other thing that happened this week is that Colstrip Sen. Duane Ankney released a video angrily attacking Billings Gazette reporter Tom Lutey for his coverage of this whole debate.

"He is dedicated, destroying the lives, piece at a time, of those people that live and work in Colstrip."

And Ankney went on to call this fake news, Rob. It just seems to me a classic case of blaming the messenger for a message you don't like.

Saldin: The first thing you can say is, I mean, obviously this is an emotional issue for Ankney and for the Colstrip community and I can certainly empathize with that to an extent. But the attack was mean spirited, it was personal, it was way over the top and I would say even potentially dangerous. I mean, he's really saying Lutey is to blame for this. And you know, it obviously seems like Ankney has taken a page out of the Trump playbook on this one and just attacking the media. I'd also say I think all of us know Tom. I've always found him to be a total pro, very well-informed, a straight shooter. And so Ankney's comments to me just seemed a little sad.

Mauk: Holly, Republican Attorney General Tim Fox this week came out opposed to a court ruling that struck down the Affordable Care Act. And Fox is no big fan of Obamacare but he knows there is currently no substitute for people with pre-existing conditions. And that's the main reason he is against this court ruling.

Michels: Attorney General Tim Fox is actually breaking from the Trump administration here. What this comes out of is a Texas judge struck down the entire Affordable Care Act last year because he found the individual mandate that everybody carry insurance unconstitutional. Two important things to note here is the ACA is still in place with the rulings appealed, and that individual mandate was actually -- sort of the teeth were taken out of it in the 2017 federal tax cuts that removed the penalty for not carrying insurance. We have a group of Democratic attorney generals that are appealing that Texas ruling. But Trump's administration -- the Department of Justice -- has said it supports that and won't be appealing it. Fox joined with the Ohio attorney general, who's also a Republican, to file a brief saying that he believes the individual mandate can be separated from the full ACA. Fox is saying that he doesn't disagree that the individual mandate is unconstitutional. He's just saying the whole ACA shouldn't fall because it was struck down. Fox is really approaching this from a concern over protections for people with preexisting conditions. That's one of the provisions of the ACA -- that if you have a pre-existing condition you can't be denied insurance coverage. That protection is popular even among people who say they don't like the Affordable Care Act. Fox is running for governor in 2020 but he said in an interview with me this week that his campaign really had nothing to do with filing the brief and his concerns were much more about the pre-existing conditions provision.

Mauk: And Rob, he has been criticized for this being a purely political decision because he is running for governor.

Saldin: I think actually by politicians standards, Fox is fairly substantive. And that's actually often the case with the attorney general's office, just given the kinds of issues that come through that office. You know, but on the politics of it, I mean you could kind of get hit either way. I guess some of the critics are suggesting maybe it's political with an eye toward the general election. But I guess you could also say this is something that could hurt him actually in Republican primary because people can say he's a supporter of Obamacare and wants to keep it going and is working to that end.

Mauk: Corey Stapleton will probably be one of the people who says that because he's going to be running against Fox in that primary. And also this week, state Sen. Al Olszewski announced his candidacy for the governor's seat and he brought up healthcare in his announcement.

"Every Montanan deserves quality healthcare, affordable health care, and the opportunity to have affordable health care insurance," Olszewski says.

Mauk: But Rob, the orthopedic surgeon from Kalispell is no fan of Obamacare or of Medicaid expansion, which he previously has voted against.

Saldin: It struck me as a little interesting that you have a Republican making health care, apparently, one of the central features of his campaign. Donald Trump just floated that at the national level wanting to revisit health care about a week ago and that did not go over well with Congress. He's since abandoned it. You know, that's an issue that Democrats ran on in the 2018 elections, and a lot of people credit that with a big part of their success. You know, the other thing that strikes me about this, I mean, on the Republican side, this field for governor is pretty crowded. We already have Attorney General Fox in, Corey Stapleton, Greg Gianforte is going to run -- it would be a big surprise if he doesn't leave Congress and come back and run for that -- and now Doctor Al. So you've got a lot of big figures in that field.

Mauk: But no Democrats in the governor's race yet. But Holly, Democrats have announced their candidacy this week for Montana's U.S. House seat: Kathleen Williams, who lost to Greg Gianforte just last year, and Missoula State Rep. Tom Winter, who's serving just his first term in the Legislature. That raised a few eyebrows.

Michels: Yeah, Winter is serving his first term. He's a Democrat from Missoula -- pretty new to the political process. When he was announcing his candidacy, he really highlighted that he actually flipped a state House seat in 2018 to come to the Legislature. Like Olszewski, he's pretty focused on health care in his campaign. He has an in-home health care business and he's also talked a lot about his sister having a pre-existing condition that has shaped his thinking on health care issues. Winter really wouldn't weigh in to the national debate over what kind of health care system we should have -- you know, saying if you would support something like a single payer approach. He said he really wants to see the needs of rural states like Montana met first, talking about how, you know, still in Montana the issues are more about getting access to doctors and services. He said once, you know, he feels like Montana's concerns are met, he would sort of weigh into the bigger discussion about overall health care.

This session, Rep. Winter did bring a bill to legalize marijuana -- recreational -- in Montana. We do have a medical marijuana program in the state. That bill was brought right before a transmittal deadline and was defeated before it cleared committee. He has brought a couple other bills this session to look at health care and access to voting but those didn't go anywhere.

Mauk: Well one thing spring brings is candidates sprouting from all directions so there will be more, and we will talk about those in the future.

You've been listening to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk and I've been speaking with Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michaels and University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Holly and Rob, thanks and I'll talk to you both 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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