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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Capitol Talk': Horse-Trading On Medicaid And Colstrip; Government Transparency

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

Bills to continue Medicaid expansion — and to buy more coal — have nothing in common, unless you want one, or both, to pass. That fight, and whether transparency is good or bad for legislating top our discussion tonight on Capitol Talk.

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 key issues of this session, to continue Medicaid expansion, has been caught up in the fight over a totally unrelated bill that would have ratepayers help NorthWestern Energy buy more coal from Colstrip. And basically it's Republicans who support coal saying, 'If you want my vote on Medicaid you have to give us the save Colstrip Bill.' Am I summarizing that correctly, if all too simply?

Holly Michels: Yeah, so on Thursday we saw these two major pieces of legislation this session collide, and that led to that tie 25-25 vote where the Senate didn't advance the Medicaid expansion bill. The bill that it's being connected to, as you said, is the so-called 'save Colstrip' bill, which puts NorthWestern Energy customers on the hook for debt related to the utility acquiring a bigger share of that coal-fired power plant. Sen. Tom Richmond is a cosponsor of the Medicaid expansion bill. He's a Republican who's also carrying that Colstrip bill. He voted against the expansion bill on Thursday. And after the vote he said that that was, in part, because he wanted to see how issues with his Colstrip bill played out.

Mauk: Here's Sen. Duane Ankney, who's from Colstrip and is a staunch advocate for his community. He's part of the moderate Republican coalition that Democrats are counting on to vote for Medicaid expansion. But here's how he bluntly put the argument.

“You know we work hard for a lot of our bills and we see absolutely no support on the other side of the aisle for a lot of our natural resource bills,” he says. “And after all natural resource is what's going to pay for this Medicaid bill.”

Mauk: And that's a clear quid pro quo Holly. He's saying, you want Medicaid — give me coal.

Michels: That move definitely got the attention from the people that that group of Republicans were trying to get the attention from; that includes Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. He said after that vote that Republicans should be ashamed of linking those two policies together. Democrats after the vote said they'd be working with those five Republican cosponsors who voted against the bill to see what they could do to change their votes. Nobody will say who was sitting down overnight to try to hash out a deal, but it's safe to say there were a lot of meetings late night and early morning trying to come to some sort of arrangement to move this forward. On Friday the House committee that deals with energy issues is planning to take executive action on the Colstrip bill Richmond is carrying. That's where they'll decide if they'll advance it onto the full Senate and if they'll put on amendments to it. There are some amendments proposed at this point, but it's unclear if those will be added or not. Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso from Butte did try to bring the Medicaid expansion bill back for a vote in the Senate earlier on Friday afternoon, but that effort failed. It’s because senators are probably waiting to see what happens with the Colstrip bill before they take up expansion again. It is expected that expansion will be before the full Senate again for another vote. Both the Medicaid expansion bill and the Colstrip bill, if it's amended, would need to move back to the body that they started in by Tuesday, because that's another transmittal deadline.

Mauk: Well the key figure in this is Gov. Bullock. He's the one that they've got to convince on Save Colstrip because they have the votes to get the Colstrip bill through the House and Senate.

Michels: The Senate has passed the Colstrip bill already on a 27 to 22 vote. And we'll see how the House handles that bill, but it has been endorsed at this point by at least half of the Legislature so Bullock is the real target that they need to sway now by leveraging this Medicaid bill against it. Bullock has said that he has concerns over how the Colstrip bill looks at this point. He really has never commented on if he would sign or veto a bill before it reaches his desk, but he has made pretty clear that in its current form it's not something he would probably support.

Mauk: Rob there's a lot of speculation about why NorthWestern is fighting so hard for this when, as we've discussed before, other utilities are divesting and getting out of coal. But some like Public Service Commission Vice Chair Bob Lake sees saving Colstrip as a risk worth taking.

“Commission views the premature closure of a large portion of Colstrip as a greater risk to consumers than the acquisition of another 150 megawatt share pf Colstrip under the terms of the bill,” he says.

Mauk: So that's one argument, Rob, is that they need the energy, and that's why they're fighting so hard for it.

Rob Saldin: Yeah, I mean certainly opponents of the bill don't even come close to buying that. They say ‘Look, NorthWestern Energy, if it needs more energy it can just go get it on the open market.’ That's a totally routine thing. So this is just a smokescreen.

They say ‘Look, this is a great deal for Northwestern Energy and its shareholders.’ And the key thing in all of this is that the bill would exempt the company from the usual regulatory oversight that's in place to make sure that utilities don't take advantage of their customers. Customers who, of course, have no choice, effectively, but to purchase their energy from Northwestern.

In Colstrip, the current owners there don't want it, right. So much so, in fact, that they're apparently willing to give it away for free. And NorthWestern Energy doesn't want it either unless it gets to evade the usual regulatory process and gets a guaranteed payoff. So usually when a company like this would make a big acquisition there is a risk involved and you don't know for sure whether it's going to work out. You might think it's going to work out and hope it's going to work out but you don't know for sure. And so in deciding to pull the trigger on purchasing something like Colstrip, which NorthWestern Energy by the way can do right now — they don't need this legislation to purchase Colstrip. But usually when deciding whether to do something like that you have to weigh the potential risk versus the potential reward. Well what the Legislature is doing, effectively, is saying to NorthWestern, ‘Well, how about this: Montana citizens will assume all the risk and you're guaranteed the big reward.’ So this is a great deal for the company. It's a guaranteed money maker.

Mauk: There are some Republicans who find this an odd position for Republicans to take, and one of those is Public Service Commissioner Roger Koopman.

“If you believe that corporate welfare, consumer subsidies of monopolies, those things are the way to encourage and promote free enterprise and to help the people of Colstrip, then this is obviously a bill you would like,” he says.

Mauk: And Rob that is something that does seem like an odd position for some Republicans to take.

Saldin: Yeah it sure does. And to be saying that we're going to do what it takes to save Colstrip, which is the other thing going on here that matters a great deal to some of these Republicans. But the thing is there's just something deeply unconservative about all of this, right? Traditionally, conservatives are the ones who emphasize the importance of the market and market forces. And the idea there is that, you know, as much as reasonably possible government shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers, right. There should be an even playing field, not some special sweetheart deal for the well-connected. And if you have that kind of real competition that actually benefits society in all sorts of ways, it's more efficient, it lowers costs, satisfies consumer demand and so on. So let the market do its work is the argument that we typically hear from conservatives.

Well the central problem for Colstrip is that the market is in fact speaking, and an increasing number of people just don't want what Colstrip is selling. And for some that's because they want cleaner energy. For others it's about cost, right? Coal just isn't the bargain it once was. But whatever the reason, these are market forces at work. So from this perspective, in seeking to prop up Colstrip and create a good deal for NorthWestern Energy, Republicans in the Legislature are kind of putting their thumbs on the scale in a way that conservatives, at least in theory, typically are opposed to.

Mauk: The whole issue of Medicaid expansion versus the Save Colstrip bill is something very much in flux. And as of this taping this is where things stand, and we'll continue to follow that.

But Holly, I want to move on to a couple of other bills we've been talking about all of this session that appear headed to becoming law, but not as originally proposed. And one is a bill to move oversight of for-profit schools for troubled teens from the Labor Department to the Health Department. And that looks like that will happen, but it's lost some of its teeth.

Michels: This bill is meant to fix a problem with that board. There were other amendments put on it Wednesday, though, that weaken it quite a bit. Some of those changes include getting rid of minimum standards of care at these residential treatment programs, and also getting rid of a requirement that all employees be trained, certified and qualified for the positions they hold. Those changes came from Rep. Bob Brown, who's a Republican from Thompson Falls, who said that he'd met with program owners who run these residential treatment programs the night before he brought this amendment. That meeting wasn't public and Brown won't talk to the Missoulian which ran a very long series talking about problems at these schools about who he met with and what they discussed. Bills do have public hearings where people who have concerns about legislation can voice them in front of lawmakers and the public. But this was an effort by Brown to get around that so no one really knows what was discussed there.

Brown is from a district where many of these programs are located. The Legislature also has a pretty long history of lax oversight of the board that is now proposed to be eliminated. But you know, there’s just not a lot of effort to really rein in what goes on at these schools. We did see that people who support Sands’ bill say they were frustrated about the changes Brown made and said that they weaken the bill, but they're still happy this is going forward. They call it a step in the right direction. The Senate does still have to sign off on these amendments so we'll see pretty soon here if they're OK with those changes, or if maybe Sands might make an effort to remove what Brown changed in the bill.

Mauk: Supporters do see it as a necessary first step and one that's long overdue.

Finally Rob, this session has come under fire for its lack of transparency. Montana has very strong open meetings laws and a legislative subcommittee, apparently, met in an unannounced session recently drawing the ire of among others, the Montana Newspaper Association. What's going on there?

Saldin: The place you have to start is with the Montana Constitution. It's a very notable feature of the Montana Constitution that we have these rules about openness and transparency, and the Supreme Court has consistently backed that up. And these issues come up fairly frequently. And I would say just maybe at the risk of creating some tension here in our Capitol Talk team, I observed that a lot of times — and I think this is happening this time too — a lot of my journalist friends, and a pretty large swath of the public for that matter, tend to talk about this issue as something like kind of a good guy-bad guy situation in which journalists and the inquiring public are the good guys pitted against these conspiring politicians who are eager to pull one over on their constituents.

Well, political scientists tend to be a little bit more ambivalent about this stuff, and see competing goods here, right? On the one hand, sure, transparency is good, but it's also desirable to have smooth-running effective institutions. And sometimes these goods are in tension, and so political scientists often note that, you know, there have been some unintended consequences to a lot of the good government reforms that came out of the '70s, which is when our Constitution was created. And under the old, less transparent rules legislators did have a little bit more space to work together and have an easier time compromising. So some people point to a lot of the fact that everything is on TV now; you can stream it sitting at home for everyone to see. That this is something that contributes to political polarization because it forces these legislators to kind of play to the camera, play their kind of assigned role rather than to work together with a colleague. So there are some upsides, obviously, some good things to all this transparency that's baked into the cake of Montana’s government. But there are some downsides too.

Mauk: Holly, I for one am not sure that playing to the camera could ever be eliminated, but I do think from my point of view as a journalist, transparency and good governing are not mutually exclusive.

Michels: Yeah I would agree with that. I'm sure there are a lot of deals being cut last night on the Colstrip and Medicaid expansion bills, and as a journalist I would have liked to have had access to those to know what's being traded. Because this is policy that affects everyone in Montana in some way and I think, you know, it's our role to be able to tell people what was done to get to the deal made.

I do think too, you're not ever going to get out of a situation where there are people having meetings that we don't know about. Legislators are always going to find a way to meet without the public knowing. And to Rob’s point, we have seen several times this session where legislators are standing on the House or Senate floor and they’ll look right at the camera that's broadcasting them online or on TV and say ‘I'm speaking to the people in my district right now.’ So they're not debating with people in the room, but they're making a point directly to their constituents.

Mauk: Well we'll never have 100 percent transparency probably, but I would settle for 99.9 percent, myself.

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 Michels and University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. And with a little over two weeks left we'll try to keep up with all the fast-paced goings on at the Legislature. And Holly, Rob I'll talk to you next week. Thanks.

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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