CHIP Funding Hits GOP Roadblock

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Plans to pay for the voter-approved expansion of children’s health insurance hit a roadblock Wednesday, the same day U.S. Sen. Max Baucus arrived at the state Capitol to laud the program.

The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services deadlocked along party lines on a motion to pay $35 million for the Initiative 155 enhancement of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Democrats in the Legislature, Gov. Brian Schweitzer and state Auditor Monica Lindeen immediately railed against the vote.

And far more rare was a member of the state’s congressional delegation standing in front of a joint session of state lawmakers, asking them to change their mind in rejecting CHIP expansion. Baucus used his customary speech on the House floor to tell lawmakers that CHIP has bipartisan support in Congress, and urged them to allocate money as the voters requested in November.

“I just hope that when the dust settles, the smoke clears, the appropriation is there for the kids,” Baucus said in a meeting with Democratic legislators before his speech.

The legislative move does not mean funding of the program is dead, but it is more problematic.

The House, split 50-50 among Republicans and Democrats, could still add it to the budget. Then the Senate, controlled by Republicans, will have its say.

Baucus has been a leading proponent in Washington D.C. for CHIP and a key figure in negotiations over federal plans to allow states to expand the program. The federal government pays the highest share of the program’s cost.

“CHIP is a real program that helps real families who really need it,” he told the state lawmakers.

Republicans have argued voters would not have approved the plan had they known state finances would be tight, or point out that lawmakers need to start trimming the budget somewhere. Others say President Barack Obama may find other methods of expanding CHIP.

Sen. John Esp, a Big Timber Republican who opposed the initiative from the start, said the notion of expanding income limits to allow families of five earning $65,000 on the program is wrong-headed in tough times. He said that would force lawmakers to cut back programs for needier people.

“Buying health insurance for families that by Montana standards are moderately wealthy is not more important than grandma getting thrown out of a nursing home,” Esp said.

Senate President Bob Story, R-Big Timber, said voters had no idea that a big recession was on the way. He also said the initial opposition is not a caucus position, and he expects some Republicans could endorse the expansion in the end.

“To the extent possible, we can try to fulfill the will of the people,” Story said. “When the voters made this decisions, they assumed we had enough money to fund existing programs.”

Democrats blasted the arguments, pointing to passage of the expansion by more than a two-to-one margin on the November ballot. That measure set aside the money into a special account. But constitutionally, only the Legislature can appropriate money.

“To argue that voters didn’t know what they were voting for is asinine,” said Sen. David Wanzenried, D-Missoula. “There’s something about this (subcommittee) vote that smells to high heaven.”

Democrats recognized Schweitzer’s budget recommendation will have to be trimmed in the face of falling tax collections. Lawmakers on Wednesday also endorsed new revenue projections that show as much as $100 million will have to come out of the original proposal.

“There isn’t any question there will be something we have to cut,” said Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula. “We shouldn’t start with the thing Montana families need, and the thing they voted for.”

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