Flathead Leadership Moment

By Beacon Staff

There are not many moments left in the Montana Legislature as next week lawmakers adjourn from the regular session. Their 90 days is up.

The major policy decisions facing Montana will be made over this weekend, heading into the start of the next and final week. Bills once tabled easily resurface amended into other bills with similar titles.

The Flathead is fortunate to have a dozen representatives in Helena. It’s a powerhouse delegation, representing a politically diverse valley. But not since 1951 has the Flathead been home to a speaker of the House.

Montana taxpayers appropriately care for lawmakers during service. Lawmakers receive less than $20,000 for expenses and salary wages for the 90-day session.

Politicians are properly eligible for travel money, retirement benefits, and dental, vision and life insurance. But a big public benefit is the nearly $18,000 in health insurance state lawmakers receive per two-year term.

Last week the sole Flathead lawmaker voting to reform Medicaid in Montana was Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell. Hopefully more lawmakers will join Tutvedt in the House as Montana’s biannual session quickly comes to an end.

Rep. Ed Lieser, D-Whitefish, said that if a House floor vote occurred this session that he would support Gov. Steve Bullock’s Medicaid reform proposal.

According to fiscal analysts, accepting Medicaid would infuse $6 billion into Montana’s economy over the next eight years. It would create some 12,000 jobs.

In the Flathead Valley nearly 19,000 people are uninsured. Accepting Medicaid provides health coverage for more than 10,000 people just in the Flathead. Old people and young people earning less than $15,400 are then eligible for Medicaid insurance. Minimum wage earners working full-time jobs do not qualify.

A community health needs assessment by the Flathead City-County Health Department, Kalispell Regional Healthcare and the North Valley Hospital indicate that nearly one quarter of valley residents under the age of 65 are uninsured. And nearly three quarters of the uninsured report that they cannot purchase insurance because it is unaffordable.

Bullock’s Medicaid reform bill would accept $774 million in federal money in to Montana over the next two years. That’s a lot of money into the state.

Today, the federal government pays for two-thirds of the cost to run the existing Montana Medicaid.

Under Bullock’s reform proposal, the federal government pays 100 percent of Montana Medicaid for the next three years and transitions to 90 percent in six years.

Bullock’s Medicaid reform is a good financial deal for Montana, way better than the existing plan.

Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, has indicated that he will not accept more federal Medicaid money for Montana. Unless Blasdel releases the caucus to vote, expect Flathead House Republicans to politically vote with a speaker of the House from the valley.

Blasdel was a freshman lawmaker in 2007 when Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, was then speaker of the House. Sales led the GOP-controlled House in not producing a budget in that 90-day session.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer promptly called lawmakers back into special session after allowing them to spend several grueling days home taking political heat from Main Street locals. The budget passed within days with Blasdel in opposition. But Blasdel supported Schweitzer’s $400 property tax rebate during that special session.

Next week is a leadership moment for Speaker Blasdel. The onus to accept federal Medicaid money is on the House. Blasdel should put Bullock’s Medicaid reform on the House floor for a vote.

Tutvedt did well passing Medicaid in the Senate; all the Flathead House delegation should join him and accept the $6 billion of federal Medicaid money and create 12,000 jobs for Montana.

Mike (Uncommon Ground) Jopek and Dave (Closing Range) Skinner often fall on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to political and outdoor issues. Their columns alternate each week in the Flathead Beacon.

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