Tin Men Have No Hearts

By Beacon Staff

The 63rd Montana Legislature is over. The assembly of elected servants passed a state budget, gave public servants a small raise, funded public education, shored up public pensions, invested in public infrastructure, and conducted themselves more-or-less with the respect that service warrants.

In the closing days, politicians passed a lopsided $150 million income tax cut that oddly raised taxes on the working poor but cut taxes for the rich. A business equipment tax cut may become law, but lawmakers provided no help for Flathead homeowners stung from home property tax reappraisals.

Overall, the Legislature was prepared to earn an above average grade for policy efforts but the health care debacle dragged report card grades to below average.

With U.S. Sen. Max Baucus due for re-election in 2014, Montana Republicans hungered to again bash “ObamaCare” in next fall’s elections. But Baucus did the unforeseeable; he retired with grace after four giant decades of public service to Montana.

The bashing of ObamaCare did not defeat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester last November. And it would’ve had little effect against Baucus, who was a tenacious campaigner.

Rep. Pat Noonan introduced the first Medicaid expansion bill into the Legislature before St. Valentine’s Day. It would have accepted $774 million of federal funding to expand Medicaid over the next two years, created 5,000 jobs immediately, and provided life-saving health care to 70,000 uninsured Montanans.

Gov. Steve Bullock proposed Access Heath Montana in the House. It accepted the same $774 million of federal funding, created the same thousands of jobs, and enrolled 70,000 uninsured Montanans into the federal single payer Medicaid program.

Bullock tailored his proposal to increase doctors and caretakers in Montana. Bullock included a sunset provision of a three-year trial. Subsequent Legislatures would have to reauthorize the policy. It contained little cost to the state.

With the notable exception of freshman Rep. Ed Lieser, D-Whitefish, the Flathead House lawmakers opposed access to health care. A University of Montana study indicates that more than 12,000 people in Flathead County could gain access to federal funding, becoming eligible to enroll into the single-payer insurance program designed for the poor.

The Senate had two major health care bills. Sen. Christine Kauffman’s, D-Helena, bill to accept 100 percent federal funding was tabled.

Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, passed a federal funding bill to the House, with Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, supporting Medicaid expansion.

Wanzenried’s bill was sent to a committee where Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, and fellow Republicans promptly tabled the lifesaving bill.

With Tutvedt’s help, Wanzenried amended another House bill to use the $774 million of federal funding to help provide private insurance from the open market for as many as 12,000 citizens in Flathead County alone.

But Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, undertook a tricky procedural move and banished federal funding to founder in committee rather than debate the bill on the House floor. Democrats objected to the unorthodox procedure, but all the Flathead Republicans supported the speaker’s rebuff of $774 million in federal funding that contained no cost to Montana.

Blasdel and Flathead House Republicans pocket vetoed the most critical bill of the 63rd Legislature.

The tin men of the Legislature assured that 70,000 Montanans are not eligible this fall to sign up for sizeable federal subsidies on the online health exchange, and have no access to $774 million of federal funding for Medicaid or private insurance. Poor Montanans are subject to federal mandate fines come January, and existing policy holders will subsidize uncompensated health care in hospital emergency rooms.

In politics, heart matters. The Flathead House Republicans chose to not secure health care for 12,000 valley citizens. For that debacle, the 63rd Legislature earned a below average grade for substandard policy performance.

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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