Flathead Lawmakers Evaluate Legislative Session

By Beacon Staff

A panel of four Flathead Republican lawmakers last week gave assessments of the 63rd Legislature, offering mixed reactions on specific issues but mostly agreeing that the session was productive.

Reps. Mark Blasdel of Somers and Scott Reichner of Bigfork were joined by Sens. Bruce Tutvedt and Jon Sonju of Kalispell at a May 2 Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Red Lion Hotel.

Mark Baker, the chamber’s representative in Helena, moderated the panel discussion. Baker told the crowd “the entire Flathead delegation is highly respected in Helena across the spectrum of issues.”

Baker commended Blasdel’s performance as speaker of the House, calling it the “most important position in the Legislature.”

“Having someone like Speaker Blasdel assume that role is a tremendous honor for you all that live and work up here,” Baker said. “He did a great job.”

One of the most notable moments of Blasdel’s speakership was when the House passed the session’s major budget bill with a unanimous – and unheard of – 100-0 bipartisan vote.

“I’m proud of it,” Blasdel said. “House Bill 2 was a good product. Some of the other spending features, I think there could have been some work done.”

Sonju said the House did “fantastic work” in sending the budget bill over to the Senate with a unanimous vote. The senator voted against the budget because he felt it spent too much, but said overall he gave it a “pretty decent passing grade.” At some point, he would like to see the state shift more to “priority-based budgeting.”

Tutvedt said he had five priorities heading into the session: addressing education, tax policy, pension reform, the state employee pay plan and Medicaid. He said the Legislature made progress on four of those issues, with only Medicaid remaining unresolved, which he said could lead to a special session.

“We came out with a structurally balanced budget,” Tutvedt said. “We came out with a $182 million ending fund balance.”

Reichner discussed the challenges of competing with a multitude of interests when figuring out how to utilize the $500 million surplus. As an example, he said he proposed a $100 million property tax relief plan that didn’t pass, whereas income tax and business equipment tax relief packages did.

“That’s how the process works,” Reichner said. “You have all these competing interests and the bill didn’t quite make it.”

Tutvedt explained his support of restoring Title X funding in the budget as part of a compromise with Democrats. The federal family planning and preventative health care funds go to clinics across the state, some of which perform abortions, though by law those dollars can’t be used for abortions.

“It’s not abortion; it’s women’s health,” Tutvedt said, adding that he understands the importance of the issue as a married man with three daughters.

Reichner lamented that the Medicaid discussion, in the wake of a June 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, turned from reform to an ultimatum of expansion or no expansion. He had been exploring Medicaid reform options following the 2011 legislative session and prior to the court ruling.

“Then the game changed,” he said. “Basically we found that everyone was either for it or against it. It was very, very difficult to find a center ground.”

“The Medicaid system in Montana needs fixing,” he added. “The delivery system is flawed.”

Sonju said fully expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance coverage to more than 70,000 Montanans has the potential to bankrupt the state.

“Let’s just call it what it is,” he said. “We’re talking about Obamacare here.”

Tutvedt was one of a handful of Senate Republicans to support a plan that would have provided low-income Montanans with access to federally subsidized health insurance, an alternative to straight Medicaid expansion called the “Arkansas plan.” That plan died in the House.

“What we’re talking about here in my opinion is the working poor,” he said. “We were going to insure the working poor.”

Blasdel said the governor’s office is considering holding a special session to address Medicaid.

“Typically with special sessions, we find out the last day,” he said.

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