Why CHIP? Why Now?

By Kellyn Brown

Despite their many critics, Montana lawmakers do well representing their constituents’ varied opinions. This state is quirky and impossible to pigeonhole left or right. Don’t touch our guns, but smoke marijuana once approved by your doctor. The politics mix progressive and conservative views with staunch libertarianism.

This legislative session lawmakers, by and large, have again reflected that. They’re an eclectic group that, by the end of each session, largely represents their state’s interests. That’s why the Republicans vote against funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, is so disappointing.

In the last election voters overwhelmingly approved expanding the popular program. In doing so, there was an expectation that the incoming Legislature will fund it. But Republicans in the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services decided to take a stand, and voted against a motion to pay $35 million for its expansion.

It was a bold move by the state’s Republicans and one that doesn’t come without risks. And these lawmakers, blatantly ignoring the votes of the vast majority of Montanans in the name of fiscal discipline, are already feeling the backlash.

Republican Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena told Lee Newspapers’ Mike Dennison that following his move to block CHIP funding he received plenty of mail.

“I got one e-mail from someone who thinks I did the right thing,” Lewis said. “The other 700 who e-mailed me think I’m an idiot.”

The GOP has offered alternatives to fully funding the program. It has proposed delaying it for two years or limiting the expansion to half of what voters approved. Democrats have balked at both suggestions and as of late last week the stalemate continued.

And until it is resolved, Republicans will rightly be perceived as the party blocking the politically popular program. Thus, they are leaving themselves wide open for condemnation. Dennison, for one, seemed perplexed by their motives. He wrote:

“It’s hard to see why they would draw this line in the sand, because 70 percent of Montanans voted for the expansion. Also, expanding CHIP and Medicaid under Healthy Montana Kids means an additional $70 million in matching health funds from the federal government – a huge injection of cash into the state economy.”

Republicans said the state’s revenue forecasts have deteriorated so rapidly since voters went to the polls in November that approving the CHIP expansion would mean making deep cuts in other public health programs. Had the public known how low the budget would drop, the argument goes, they might not have voted the way they did.

The Billings Gazette’s (the largest newspaper in the state) editorial board, however, trashed this rationale:

“Such a repeal would be an affront to Montana voters. Sure, things have changed since November. That’s when Montanans elected 125 of our 150 lawmakers. Should we immediately reconsider all those choices too? That would be as ridiculous as saying that the voters’ Healthy Montana Kids decision should be blocked, delayed or rescinded.”

Former state Auditor John Morrison, who wrote the bill and was its major proponent said it would be “hazardous and improper for any legislators to try to override the will of the people on this, because it was a very strong mandate.”

And politically, it sure appears to be a dumb move.

To choose a battle against a voter-approved initiative will earn the GOP few new friends, and the move appears wholly out of place during a session that has been marked by compromise.

Certainly, there are at least a few Republican lawmakers uneasy with a few of their colleagues blocking CHIP funding. They would do well to encourage those on the Appropriations Committee to save money elsewhere. With Montana’s budget reserves dwindling, lawmakers have to make hard decisions. Whether to fund an initiative approved by 70 percent of voters isn’t one of them.