Medicaid expansion, taxes, minimum wage and education top bills in Helena

Medicaid expansion, taxes, minimum wage and education top bills in Helena, Hungry Horse News (also Fairfield Sun Times), January 25, 2015


In the third week of the 64th Montana Legislature, Gov. Steve Bullock held a press conference to release the much awaited “Healthy Montana” plan.

House Bill 249 accepts federal funds available under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid to people who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Bullock said the plan will cover as many as 70,000 more people.

In front of a raucous crowd that filled his reception room, Gov. Bullock talked about how thousands were “left out in the cold” in the gap between the insurance exchange and Medicaid. People who earn less than $6,000 are eligible for Medicaid, and people who earn more than $11,500 a year can buy insurance on the exchange.

Republicans have said they will have their own bill ready for release soon. Their plan likely won’t use the available federal money. They say they want reform of the entire Medicaid program, and would instead like to implement a form of managed care.

In other legislature news:

• On Jan. 19, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester spoke to a joint session of the Montana Legislature, where he once served.

“It’s good to be back home,” he said.

Tester called for increased investment in infrastructure and higher pay for teachers, which garnered a round of mostly-Democratic applause. He finished his speech by praising the idea of Montana’s citizen legislature, where presumably no one is a professional politician.

“No state has a better system than we do,” Tester said.

• Republican leaders of two committees subpoenaed two workers from the state Office of Public Assistance and one former worker to testify about their work with Medicaid and other state programs.

The workers didn’t testify directly on a bill and only provided informational testimony. Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, and Rep. Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton, issued the subpoenas. Wittich said the people were afraid they might lose their jobs if they testified on their own accord.

“If they’re concerned about their jobs, the way to do it is with a subpoena,” Wittich said.

Democrats criticized the move as an attempt to distract from Bullock’s “Healthy Montana” press conference, which happened on the same day.

The three workers from Libby and Kalispell spoke on Jan. 19 to the Joint Subcommittee on Health and Human Services about problems with the computer system they use in welfare cases. Each of the three workers said fraud exists in the state welfare programs, but said they’d mostly heard about it from co-workers, which Democratic lawmakers harped on.

“In the testimony, we’ve heard quite a bit of hearsay,” House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said.

• Two education hearings last week brought droves of people to the Capitol. Many people watched the closed-circuit television outside of the hearing on Senate Bill 14, which would raise the high school dropout age to 18.

The current dropout age is 16, a law that has been in place since 1921. Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau spoke at the hearing.

“Our 21st century realities cannot be sustained by our 100-year-old laws,” Juneau said.

A parade of parents, educators and other education officials followed Juneau in support of the bill.

One opponent of the bill was Ty Belcourt, a student at the Willard Alternative School. Belcourt said transferring to Willard Alternative School was a boost to his education — not being forced to stay in a traditional high school until he was 18.

“I am not a statistic, I have the right to choose,” Belcourt said.

The committee didn’t immediately vote on the bill. Similar bills have failed in the last two sessions.

• The Senate Education Committee also heard a bill last week that would allow three elementary school districts to expand to K-12 districts.

SB 107 would affect school districts in Billings, Helena and Missoula. Hardly a seat was available in the old Supreme Court chambers, which the hearing was moved to from a smaller room. Superintendents from each district spoke in support of the bill.

• A long line of people spoke in support of HB 43, which would give the governor more power to pardon convicted criminals.

The bill would allow the governor to give someone a parole hearing without the approval of the Board of Pardons and Parole. Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, said that in at least 30 states, the governor has the power to pardon someone without a board.

“It would bring Montana’s executive clemency process into the mainstream,” MacDonald said.

More than 10 people spoke in support of the bill, saying the board needed oversight from the governor to work more effectively. Amber Foster spoke about her husband, who is in prison for statutory rape. She was the alleged victim in the case, and she said her husband deserves to be pardoned.

“I have tried and tried to get the board to listen to me,” Foster said.

The only opponent of the bill was Mike McKee, a former parole board member. McKee said the bills seeking changes to the parole board are a result of the Barry Beach case. Beach is in prison for a 1979 murder and has long claimed he is innocent. His most recent parole application was denied by the board last summer.

“I don’t think, personally, that the system is broken,” McKee said.

• A bill requested by the Montana Attorney General’s office aims to ban the use and possession of electronic cigarettes by minors.

SB 66, introduced by Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, refers to electronic cigarettes as “electronic smoking devices” and would classify them as tobacco products, which would put them under the same laws governing traditional cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

Doctors, educators and representatives from nonprofit groups spoke in favor of the bill, saying that if kids get their hands on these devices they’re more likely to become addicted to nicotine.

“These things exploded on the scene a few years ago, well ahead of any research,” Robert Shepard, a Helena doctor, said.

But a parade of opponents also showed up saying they supported a ban on sale to minors but don’t want the devices to be considered tobacco products. Many said they’d used electronic cigarettes to quit smoking.

“It’s something that worked for me,” Patrick O’Connell said. “To say that I’m smoking again, I cannot agree with.”

• Bills on two issues that seem to emerge every session saw their first hearings last week — tax cuts and raising the minimum wage.

Rep. Art Wittch, R-Bozeman, and Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, each had tax cut bills in front of the House Taxation Committee last week.

Wittich’s HB 169 would be a one-time property and income tax cut. Joe Balyeat, of Americans for Prosperity, spoke in support of the bill, saying it would spur wage growth and help the “working man.” For some, the bill didn’t go far enough. Bob Story, of the Montana Taxpayers Association, said he was against the bill because it isn’t permanent.

Regier’s HB 166 would cut income tax rates by 0.1 percent in each income bracket. Americans for Prosperity again spoke in support of the bill, as did the Montana Chamber of Commerce.

“Reducing taxes increases revenue,” Regier said.

Montana Department of Revenue Director Mike Kadas spoke against both bills, saying they would actually deplete revenue and would require dipping into the budget surplus the governor has insisted on. Kadas said he’s seen legislatures that didn’t leave a budget surplus each year.

“We used to cut it way too close, and we’d end up here in special sessions trying to scrape together a budget,” Kadas said.

Heather O’Loughlin, of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, also spoke against both bills, saying the cuts only benefit the wealthy.

• On the other side of the aisle, Democrats began pushing for a higher minimum wage last week. Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, introduced SB 2, which would raise the minimum wage to $10.10. The current minimum wage is $8.05.

“Realistically … what’s before you here is an economic development bill,” Windy Boy said, adding that if people earned more they’d spend more.

Proponents said minority groups such as women and Native Americans were more adversely affected by the lower minimum wage, and that raising it would help those groups. Opponents said the proposed raise was much too high, and would stifle job growth and small business.

“Minimum wage is misguided,” Glenn Oppel, of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said.

• The House Agriculture Committee last week heard HB 145, which would create some prevention funding for the Livestock Loss Board to give out to prevent grizzly bear conflicts with livestock.

The board pays farmers and ranchers for the animals they’ve lost if they can prove the animal was killed by either a wolf or a grizzly bear. The bill would give the Livestock Loss Board $400,000 to be used for measures to keep the bears away from livestock, like building electric fences around property.

Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said the bill was a rerun from the 2013 session. In 2013, Cuffe introduced the bill that added coverage of livestock losses caused by grizzlies to the Livestock Loss Board. Included in that bill was the same $400,000 allocation, but it was ultimately line-item vetoed by the governor.

The bill had support from ranchers and conservationists.

• Sen. Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive, introduced SB 122, which would create tax breaks for ammunition manufacturers to set up shop in Montana.

Rosendale and the supporters of the bill called it a jobs bill, saying that the companies would create many jobs in the ammunition business for Montanans.

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