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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Capitol Talk': Legislature Wraps-Up; Campaign Season Heats 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: Big bills that passed, and ones that didn't; the split in the Republican party — and its consequences; Gov. Bullock's pending big announcement; and Attorney General Tim Fox's fondness for chicken.


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, this session has adjourned with two big items soon to be signed into law: Medicaid expansion and infrastructure funding. And both had to be tweaked to get the necessary votes, but in the end the compromises were not too onerous to supporters.

Holly Michels Before the session started we knew that Medicaid expansion was going to be the issue that dominated this Legislature, and it turned out to be that way. Republicans laid out, before this session even started, that they wanted to see work requirements added to the program. Democrats didn't want that to happen, and they brought their own bill to continue the program without those requirements. But in the end they did find compromise through Republican Representative Ed Buttery's bill. Buttery's from Great Falls and he carried the original bill that expanded Medicaid in 2015. The bill that passed does have work requirements but we saw those significantly changed through amendments to the bill as the session went on. The change resulted in the number of people expected to lose coverage on work requirements dropping from about 59,000 to 4,000. And that's where Democrats and Republicans — Republicans of the 'solutions caucus' that worked with Democrats to get the bill passed — ended up finding the agreement they needed to continue expansion in Montana this session.

We saw similar efforts between Democrats, and again, more looking at Republicans and that 'solutions caucus' group, to get an infrastructure bill passed with about $80 million in bonding projects. That tackles a project that's been before the Legislature for, I think about five sessions now, which is a $25 million renovation at Romney Hall on the Montana State University campus. A lot of the reasons that legislators were able this session to get beyond fighting over if the state should take on debt to do big projects like Romney Hall came out of another infrastructure bill that also passed that sets up a framework for how the state takes on bonding debt.

Mauk There were two big bills that failed, and one was an effort to fund pre-school education. Here's how Butte Democrat Ryan Lynch framed the preschool funding effort.

"We're actually taking a step backwards if we don't continue to fund those programs we've already established.".

Mauk And he's referring, Holly, to a pilot program that was funded by a previous session, and now those pilot programs I guess are in some kind of limbo.

Michels Yeah, they are. There's the pilot program that Bullock was able to get passed in the 2017 session, and there's also federal funding, and that's expiring too. So there's sort of two streams of funding that are ending for Montanas preschool programs as they exist now. Gov. Steve Bullock said Thursday that the collapse of any effort to continue preschool — which we saw on the final day of the session -- means that there are about 1,400 slots for preschool students that are going to go away. There's about 100 classrooms that are at risk and around 11 districts that might have to eliminate their programs. There's also about 77 Head Start teachers who could have their wages cut or lose their jobs because the Legislature was unable to come up with any funding for preschool. There were amendments that we saw on the final day of the session. This sort of had options that it presented previously in this session, and those were not successfully put on a budget companion bill. In the very end there was an effort to just continue the funding that Montana has now, and that also failed.

Mauk And we should point out that Montana is one of the few states in the country that does not fund preschool.

Michels Yeah, We are. Bullock took a group of lawmakers including Republican Rep. Eric Moore from Miles City — who ended up bringing a preschool bill that failed this session — to visit a program in Arkansas and sort of see what that state's been able to do. That happened before this session and Bullock pointed to that trip a couple times during this session, sort of saying something like 'if a state like Arkansas can do this, I would hope that Montana could.' But again, we didn't see that happen this session.

Mauk Well the other big bill that failed and got a lot of attention this session was a bill that would have allowed NorthWestern Energy to purchase more coal at Colstrip without regulatory oversight. And that bill seemed to have a lot of momentum Holly, until the waning days of the session, and then it did not. What happened?

Michels In the final days there were amendments drafted for two different bills that could have absorbed the language of this bill that would have allowed NorthWestern to pass-on more of the cost of increasing its ownership in Colstrip. The Senate actually took a step toward letting those amendments be put on one of the bills, but the House didn't reciprocate, so that vehicle for the Colstrip language went down.

There was another bill that could have worked out, but its carrier, Rep. Daniel Zolnikov of Billings, ended up getting that bill removed from the Colstrip debate and just passing in the original form that he wanted it to. I think legislators just couldn't find agreement on what would be in a bill that would find support in the Legislature and also be signed by Gov. Steve Bullock. Rep. Tom Woods who's a Democrat from Bozeman praised his fellow legislators on Thursday for resisting opening up those bills in the final days of the session. He said they would just be dangerous vehicles for language that could leave ratepayers on the hook for a lot of the cost NorthWestern could pass on to them if they bought more of Colstrip. Republican Sen. Scott Sales who's the Senate president and from Bozeman said he was disappointed that nothing came together, and he wants to see the next Legislature in 2021 take up the issue.

Mauk Rob, both Republicans and Democrats claim they came away feeling they got a lot of what they wanted, but it seems to me Democrats have more to celebrate. And here's how House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, a Great Falls Democrat framed it.

"We sat down at the table. We worked hard and we delivered all the solutions that we put out as priorities for the people of Montana."

'All the solutions' might be an exaggeration Rob, but still, they did get a lot of what they wanted.

Rob Saldin Yeah, they did Sally. You know, I do think everyone can claim some victories here. The conservative Republicans and the party leadership can feel pretty good about holding the line on taxes. That was a top priority of theirs going into the session, and there were a few tax increases, but big picture, pretty minor stuff. So I think they can legitimately feel pretty good about that. But I think you're right, Democrats didn't get everything they wanted. They didn't get the preschool bill through that Holly discussed. That was a tough one for them. But pretty much everywhere else they seem to have got what they wanted. And as Holly described, Medicaid expansion — that was the big issue. And you know, they didn't get quite what they were hoping for. They just wanted to continue exactly as it was. There were work requirements put in, but those are so mild compared to what was proposed, what was legitimately on the table, what we've seen in other states. And so really, Democrats have to feel pretty good about the work requirements that were put in and how mild they were, even if that's not quite what they would have had if they could design the thing themselves. There was also a sunset provision put into the Medicaid legislation, so that means that the Legislature is going to have to revisit this again in six years. But again that's a pretty small consolation for the conservatives, because by the time this comes before the Legislature again, Medicaid expansion will have been in place for a full decade. And just one of the things we know from the history of social policy in this country is that it's really hard to take something like that away after it's been put in place and after it's become baked into the cake. And we saw that in this session. Well, six years from now that's even going to be more the case. So that's just a big big win, I think, for Democrats and for the governor and for the 'solutions caucus' Republicans.

Mauk We've been talking all session about the impact of that 'solutions caucus', the moderate Republicans, and here's House Republican Majority Leader Brad Tschida who was blunt about his dissatisfaction with the so-called 'solutions caucus'.

"Our caucus has seemed to become two separate minorities. One of which differed with my values and my beliefs."

Mauk That's pretty accurate Rob. Two separate minorities in the party.

Saldin Yeah it sure is, and if anything, that split between the conservatives and the 'solutions caucus' has even grown wider, I think, over the course of this legislative session. That's been a defining feature now for a number of years. But in a lot of ways it seems to have become even personal. You know, just one tiny little snapshot of this that kind of illuminates the larger picture: There was a little dispute about who was going to end up on an interim committee. Nancy Ballance is one of the 'solutions caucus' people, she's an obvious person to have on this interim committee. Well, she may have misplayed her hand a little bit, but she didn't get on there, and it was in kind of a screw-you moment, right? It was a way of sticking it to the 'solutions caucus' people by the conservatives. And that just illuminates how deep this divide is. And it's a nice picture of where the Republican Party is at in Helena these days.

Mauk Holly, two other issues that got a lot of attention this session weathered near defeat but passed in the end. One was Hanna's Act which is intended to improve the investigation of missing persons, and especially intended to improve the search for missing indigenous women; and the funding mechanism for a new state historical museum. Those were two tough slogs but they made it through.

Yep. Hanna's Act had a pretty long path to passage. It actually had the teeth taken out of it at one point, but both the position it creates in the Department of Justice to assist in the searches for missing people, and the funding for that was restored.

The other bill is the bill to build a new heritage center in Helena. That's been something that's been before the Legislature since 2005; finally passed this session. It'll renovate and then put a new building near the Capitol for the state history museum. It's a 1 percent increase on the state lodging tax to help pay for that. It also puts about $400,000 to the Daly mansion in Hamilton and the Moss mansion in Billings, as well as grant programs for smaller museums around the state. Those ways to help fund other projects, just beside the main history museum in Helena, are why a lot of people are saying it was able to actually pass this session.

Mauk Rob, with the legislative session over, Gov. Steve Bullock is now expected to announce he is joining the presidential race. And he needs to do it soon, the first debates are scheduled for June.

Saldin Yeah, exactly. I mean, we've talked about this before. The timing isn't ideal but he really didn't have any choice unless he wanted to undermine the Legislative session. But now the session is over he still has some work to do. He's got a lot of bills he either needs to sign or veto. But yeah, I would think he needs to pull the trigger on that very soon. Within the next couple weeks.

Mauk Meanwhile, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Fox made headlines this week when he invited the CEO of Chick-fil-A to open more restaurants in Montana. I think they have one in Montana right now. And this was after cities in New York and Texas rebuffed the chicken chain because of the CEO's anti-gay rights activism. And Tim Fox has gotten into what is a kind of a sticky wicket here.

Saldin Yeah, it is. You know, I actually think it was a pretty savvy and clever PR move. I mean, to start with, it got him some serious attention. This letter made national headlines. And then it also works really well as a signaling device, I think, in a prominent culture-war issue that conservatives know about and think is really important. This thing with Chick-fil-A, it's become a lightning rod and it resonates deeply with certain segments on the left and the right. And I think it could definitely help in the primary, just because Fox has been at some risk of getting defined as the mushy moderate in this field. So, taking a symbolic stand on this really pushes back on that characterization, and I think just can't help but be a plus for the Republican primary electorate.

Mauk Evangelicals praise the move, but Montana human rights activists labeled it bigotry masquerading as religious freedom.

Saldin Yeah, they did. I happen to think, though, that this Chick-fil-A thing, it's deep on passion but it's pretty shallow, I suspect, in terms of the actual raw numbers who care about this. And I'd be interested to know who the person is who at once is horrified by Chick-fil-A's positions on gay marriage and things like that, but who is also open to voting for the Republican gubernatorial candidate. I think people have sorted, and anyone who feels like Chick-fil-A is terrible on these issues is probably not going to be open to voting for Tim Fox anyway in a general election. So I see this as something that probably helps him and doesn't hurt him.

Mauk Well we shall see how that plays out because the legislative session is over but the political campaign season is just gearing up.

Mauk You've been listening to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk 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 the end of the session, this is also the end of this edition of Capitol Talk. And Holly, Rob, it's been great talking politics with you and I hope we all now get to get out and enjoy a beautiful Montana summer. Thanks you guys.

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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