By Michael Wright
UM School of Journalism Legislative News Service

HELENA – After wrangling over rules, the last remaining bill to expand Medicaid at the 64th Montana Legislature appears to be headed to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 405, sponsored by Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, expands Medicaid to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. It accepts federal money available under the Affordable Care Act, asks some on Medicaid to pay premiums for their coverage, and creates job-training programs for recipients through the Department of Labor.

A House committee heard the bill early in the week and gave it a “do not pass” recommendation, meaning it couldn’t be debated on the floor unless 60 representatives voted to do so. House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, objected on the House floor, saying the bill was one of their “silver bullets,” referring to a deal cut at the beginning of the session that gave Democrats six chances to bring bills to the House floor with 51 votes.

Hunter sent a letter to House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, before the bill’s hearing that designated it as one of their silver bullets, and Hunter argued that because of the letter, the “do not pass” report was improper.

That led to a two-day rules fight that ended up going Hunter’s way. A simple majority vote sent the bill to the House floor with support from Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion said the bill would provide much needed coverage, offer the poorest Montanans a boost out of poverty, and keep rural hospitals open by reducing uncompensated care costs.

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, said he supports the bill because it can help people out of poverty, and incentivizes people to work harder. He added that the bill covers important groups of people, including veterans.

Opponents argued it will cover “able-bodied, childless adults” and gives them access to care over those who are supposed to be on Medicaid, the poorest of the poor.

The bill passed 54-42 and will now head to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk.

Senate passes increased budget

After adding more than $20 million in spending, the Senate passed House Bill 2, the state budget.

The bill lines out approximately $4 billion in general fund spending over the next two years. With Senate amendments, it spends about $23 million more than the version passed by the House last month.

“The bill has moved itself toward a better condition at every stage of the journey,” said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the chair of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee that added most of the spending increases.

“Improvements were certainly made on the Senate side,” Bullock said, though he added there were still more things he’d like to see added to the bill.

One of the parts of his budget proposal that hasn’t been funded is the $37 million for “Early Edge,” the plan to expand preschool. The program would be voluntary for both schools and students.

Sen. Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade, tried one amendment to fully fund the program, saying full discussion on the program hadn’t happened yet.

“This is a priority with the administration,” Hamlett said. “And we need to have the discussion.”

Jones, who led the subcommittee that handled the education portion of the budget, opposed the amendment saying it wasn’t proven to be completely effective and mostly helps “at-risk” students and larger school districts.

The amendment failed along party lines 29-21. Hamlett brought a second amendment that would have partially funded the program, which also failed along party lines.

In addition to the $23 million added to the 2016-2017 budget, a Senate committee also added about $24 million to cover deficits in the 2014-2015 budget, usually included in a different bill that was killed by the House last month. That money will prevent furloughs in some state offices and budget shortfalls for schools.

The bill will now go to a House and Senate conference committee to hammer out final details before it’s sent to the governor.

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at michael.wright@umontana.edu. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.