By Michael Siebert Community News Service
University of Montana School of Journalism

HELENA – Budget subcommittees proposed further cuts to Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget throughout the second week of the Montana Legislature.

“If we can get through the budget and balance it, that will be probably all we can do,” said Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton.

There is conflict between Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposed budget and what the Republican-dominated legislature says is a more fiscally responsible approach. Gov. Bullock proposed roughly $73 million in cuts, but Republican lawmakers are proposing cuts of roughly $120 million.

Gov. Bullock’s budget would fund new projects, including infrastructure, by incurring debt through bonding, and raising money through taxes on items like cigarettes and wine. Bullock’s plan also calls for increased income taxes on Montanans making more than $500,000 a year and taxes on gas and coal to help balance the budget.

The Republican plan aims to balance the budget by making bigger cuts.

“We need to reject the governor’s proposal for new income taxes against the good job creators of this state,” said House Majority Leader Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton, referring to the proposed income tax change.

While committees cut an additional $5.5 million the first week of the session, Republicans proposed even more drastic cuts last week, including a $23 million funding cut to the Montana University System, an increase from the roughly $13 million cut proposed by Gov. Bullock.

The Office of Public Instruction would also see a slightly deeper cut from what was initially proposed, totalling nearly $24 million.

Rep. Ballance also noted a decrease in senior and long term care Medicaid funding that would be bigger than the governor’s proposal, but said that may change.

“The good news is, I think we’re moving down the right path,” Ballance said, citing a $10 million loan to the Department of Transportation from the state’s general fund that will fund highway construction projects as a success.

Big infrastructure bills get first hearing

The Long-Range Planning Subcommittee began hearing the first of the infrastructure bills at the Montana Legislature aimed at building and repair projects across the state. Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte, introduced two bills that would substantially increase infrastructure funding largely by incurring debt through bonding.

House Bill 11 provides a total of $1 million to fund the Treasure State Endowment Program, which would help fund projects like roadway construction and other infrastructure needs. Under the bill, $100,000 would be set aside for emergency costs, while the other $900,000 would go toward grants for local governments.

“This is a critically important program, particularly to some of our smaller communities,” said Tim Burton, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns.

House Bill 14 is a broad bill that would allocate funding for and implement many new infrastructure programs across the state. The bill attracted many supporters, with a line extending outside of the small hearing room.

Two specific parts of the bill got a lot of attention: the construction of a veterans home in Butte, and the renovation of Montana State University’s Romney Hall.

Rep. Keane said the construction of the veterans home is “near and dear” to the heart of veterans in the area. Keane said Montana had set aside funding for the shelter, but construction was waiting on a federal funding match. HB 14 would allow construction to begin without that money.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s Budget Director Dan Villa stressed the importance of the Romney Hall expansion, saying that Montana State University’s annually increasing enrollment puts them in need of significantly more classroom space.

MSU Director of Community and Government Affairs Tracy Ellig echoed that statement, saying the university has seen increased enrollment of about 4,200 students. The 1,000 seats that the expansion would add, he said, would see as many as 10,000 visits from students each academic day.

Bill would help patients slapped with big air ambulance bills

Montanans who paid exorbitant costs for life flight services not covered by insurance testified at the Montana Legislature last week for a bill that would eliminate these costs.

Senate Bill 44 would remove the burden of cost for patients using out-of-network air ambulance services and would instead require that insurance companies and out-of-network air companies come to a voluntary agreement on the charges, or else make a determination through litigation. The Airline Deregulation Act, which currently covers air ambulances, does not allow state governments to regulate airline fares.  

Jesse Laslovich, chief legal counsel for outgoing State Auditor Monica Lindeen, said the issue “exemplifies the worst of what is a broken system.”

Laslovich said many parts of Montana are outside of air ambulance coverage areas. Should  Montanans in those areas have a medical emergency, they would be forced to use an out-of-network provider and then pay the full cost of the service.

That cost often reaches into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Sonia Moscolic-Andrews of Anaconda tearfully told the story of how her husband, John, had to be life-flighted twice for a head injury—once from Anaconda to Missoula, and again from Missoula to Seattle. She was billed roughly $34,000 for the first flight and about $58,000 for the second. It was only after her husband died that the charges were waived, she said.

Many others told both personal stories and those of loved ones who were saddled with excessive charges. The costs often exceeded $50,000.

The Montana Air Ambulance Coalition supported the bill. Bill Bryant, representing the group, called it a “long overdue” consumer protection bill.

However, several insurance lobbyists argued in strong opposition to the bill. Many said the bill would actually drive air ambulance companies away from networks. Others said the bill would over-regulate providers who are in-network, and that the exorbitant costs are coming from only one or two unnamed providers.

Jennifer Hensley, a lobbyist for PacificSource Health Claims, said a better solution would be to attempt to fix the federal Airline Deregulation Act, and to remove language that makes air ambulance providers a part of that legislation.

“A true federal fix is necessary,” Hensley said. “You must use the megaphone of your office to speak to your congressional delegation and urge a federal fix to the Airline Deregulation Act.”

Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.