Medicaid Expansion, Water Compact Test House Rules

After enduring numerous procedural blocks, the Legislature endorsed a compromise bill on Medicaid expansion while the future of the water compact remains unclear

By Tristan Scott
The Montana State Capitol in Helena. Beacon file photo

The Montana Legislature has backed expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, an embattled measure that passed both chambers only after encountering numerous procedural stumbling blocks along the way.

The state Senate initially cleared expansion in a 28-21 vote on March 30, but House Republicans – who earlier blocked Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s model for expansion – presented the most significant hurdle.

The compromise measure developed by Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, passed last week even though some lawmakers vehemently opposed it.

Through a complex series of rules changes and legislative maneuvering, including amendments by a key House committee that Democrats alleged was an attempt to ensure its failure, supporters brought Buttrey’s bill to the House floor on April 9, when it survived an initial 54-46 vote, passing a final 54-42 vote April 11.

A coalition of 13 moderate Republicans and all 41 Democrats supported Senate Bill 405, which needs final Senate approval of its amendments before going to Bullock’s desk.

Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, stood out as one of the most vocal anti-expansion legislators, and said the political tactics reduced the legislative process to “the law of the jungle.”

The prospects of Medicaid expansion have been in doubt since the legislative session began in January, and it didn’t come as a surprise when Bullock’s expansion plan was killed.

But the compromise bill would also accept federal funds under the Affordable Care Act, or Obmacare, extending benefits to non-disabled, childless adults, a point that stands out as the major bone of contention for many conservative Republican lawmakers. The compromise bill requires recipients to pay premiums and participate in programs designed to move people off of Medicaid and find good-paying jobs.

The bill appeared doomed when it landed in the House Human Services Committee, which is the same committee that killed the governor’s bill.

The maneuvering began when Democrats designated the Medicaid-expansion bill one of six so-called “silver bullet” measures, requiring a simple majority vote of the full House to blast it out of committee and onto the House floor.

Under House rules, all bills require a 60-vote super-majority to remove them from committee, and Medicaid-expansion advocates knew they couldn’t muster 60 votes. House rules also allow a committee to attach a “do not pass” recommendation to a bill, which the Human Service Committee did.

House Speaker Austin Knudsen ruled that the silver-bullet designation didn’t apply to SB405 because it was no longer in committee, but the pro-expansion crowd overruled him, voting 52-48 that the silver-bullet rule still applied.

The decision brought the bill to the floor for passage by a simple majority, and prompted outcry from conservative Republicans, who encouraged the coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans of hijacking the session.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, who gave the bill silver-bullet status, in turn accused Wittich, who chairs the House Human Services Committee, of “throwing smoke around” in an effort to circumvent the silver-bullet rule agreed upon prior to the session.

“This body is ultimately the arbiter of those rules,” Hunter said of the House. “Mr. Wittich’s committee twice has tried to circumvent this rule and prevent it from happening. And this body has said that is wrong.”

Meanwhile, one of the most contentious bills of the 2015 Legislature, the bill ratifying the proposed Flathead tribal water rights compact, received a “do not pass” recommendation April 13, when the House Judiciary Committee voted 11-10 to kill Senate Bill 262.

Because the bill was designated by Democrats as one of their six “silver bullet” measures, it will likely see the same political maneuvering that emerged last week surrounding Medicaid expansion.

As with Medicaid, when the do-not-pass report came to the floor, Hunter objected and called the panel’s vote “out of order.”

Because a majority of the House upheld his same argument last week on the bill to expand Medicaid, it stands to reason that it will succeed again, he said.

Knudsen overruled Hunter’s objection and said the do-not-pass recommendation stands, a decision Hunter again appealed to the House Rules Committee, which will meet Tuesday.

The same 11-10 committee majority that voted to kill the compact bill also voted 10 times to amend it, despite the objections of committee Democrats who said the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the state of Montana and numerous lawmakers have worked for years to craft the bill.

“For us to come in as a committee of 20 and destroy it piece by piece is pretty disheartening and to disregard the work that these people worked so hard on is unconscionable,” said Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena.

Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, said attaching the amendments was a “waste of time” and an overt effort to kill the bill.

“We know where this is going. Let’s end it. This is the minority part of this legislature trying to control the bipartisan majority. It will pass,” she said of the bill.

Most of the amendments came from House Majority Leader Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, who defended their merits, saying it was the duty of lawmakers to improve measures, which is what he was doing by offering the amendments.

“The water of Montana is controlled by the state for all of us not just one group,” he said.

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