HELENA – Discussion over a bill to require the state of Montana to join a lawsuit opposing federal health care reform sparked a heated debate over using the term “Obamacare” in a House committee Tuesday.
Throughout the Legislative session, Democrats have objected to use of the word to describe the federal health care reform act, saying the expression is derogatory and some say racially motivated. Many Republicans say preventing use of the word infringes on their free speech rights and the word is what most people know the act as.
Several Republican’s objected to a ruling by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ken Peterson that lawmakers refrain from using the word. They said the health care overhaul’s official name is misleading.
“If we are discussing a bill and we are on TV our constituents deserve to know what we are talking about,” said Republican Rep. Wendy Warburton of Havre.
Democrat Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez strongly disagreed. She said the term is derived from racism toward the president and Republicans are only using the offensive term because they have such a large majority in the Legislature.
“That’s ridiculous but that’s the facts as it is,” said the Billings representative.
Another Democrat, Rep. Ellie Hill, supported Pease-Lopez’s sentiments, she said the term was “insulting” and using it is contrary to the respectful decorum in the Legislature.
Discussion over if the term should be used boiled down to whether it was acceptable to prohibit the use of some words in the body, and who gets to decide what’s appropriate.
Republican Rep. Michael More said he objected to other words that have not been banned in the Legislature but said he finds a way to deal with the words without banning them. “I would suggest you can only be offended if you chose to be offended,” he said.
In the end, lawmakers on the committee appealed to respect of other lawmakers and moderation.
“I think it’s a matter of common courtesy, courtesy to the other side, it has nothing to do with a political view or polarization,” said Republican chairman Peterson from Billings, who stood by his ruling that lawmakers should avoid using the word but public testimony could refer to the health care act by any term.
The bill that sparked the debate was one to make the Montana attorney general join about two dozen other states in a Florida lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. The bill was heard in a House committee Tuesday after having successfully passed through the Senate.
Critics say a state mandate is the wrong way to go about challenging the legislation while supporters of the bill see it as an important way to stop federal overreach.
The U.S. district judge in Florida hearing the lawsuit in question decided the federal health care reform is unconstitutional several months ago. The ruling is expected to be appealed by the Obama administration and it is an issue likely to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
People supporting having Montana join the lawsuit in Florida say it’s important for the state to challenge a law they feel is burdensome on taxpayers by making unnecessary spending such as requiring the state to pay more for its share of programs like Medicaid.
“I believe the state can do a better job administering health care than the federal government can,” said Bob Faw from Big Timber.
Sen. Jason Priest, the Red Lodge Republican carrying the measure, said the bill was the state combating an overbearing federal government.
“What we are doing is making it the law of the land to oppose this bill,” said Priest.
Those opposing Priest’s measure say the state should not back a politicized lawsuit against elected officials and the measure could violate the Montana Constitution’s separation of powers by putting a legislative requirement on the attorney general.
Anthony Johnstone from the attorney general’s office said the state doesn’t have an interest in the bill and individuals can challenge laws as they see fit. “You do not ask courts to put into the constitution the policy judgments of some people,” Johnstone said.
The bill faces several more votes in the House before it could go to the governor to sign.
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