Flathead Lawmakers Recall ‘Mixed Bag’ of Successes, Disappointments

With Democratic Gov. Bullock in town, Republican legislators convene to appraise session

By Tristan Scott
Sens. Bruce Tutvedt, left, and Mark Blasdel laugh at a joke by Rep. Frank Garner during a panel discussion with Rep. Keith Regier at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon on May 19, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

A quorum of Republican Flathead lawmakers delivered an assessment of the 2015 Legislature May 19 at a Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon, describing the session’s mix of pluses and pitfalls, while just down the road at an unfinished section of the Kalispell bypass, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock expressed disappointment that the Republican party couldn’t come together during the session’s waning days to pass an infrastructure bill.

Neither Bullock nor the lawmakers could predict whether the Legislature might reconvene for a special session to tackle the $150 million infrastructure bill, but with both sides entrenched in their resolve not to make major concessions, the prospect is unlikely.

On hand at the chamber event were Reps. Keith Regier and Frank Garner and Sens. Mark Blasdel and Bruce Tutvedt, who mostly agreed that the session produced a sound budget, but clashed over passage of a Medicaid expansion measure and approval of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ water compact.

The lawmakers’ sharp divide over some of the session’s most significant policies reveals the textured ideology that gave rise to disputes not just among the Flathead contingent of Republican lawmakers, but the party as a whole.

“We’re a diverse group,” Blasdel said.

Republican leaders said they’re pleased they held the state budget to increases of just 3 percent this year and next, passed an increase in state funding for public schools with no controversy and approved expansions of community-based mental health programs.

“We came in with a goal of a 3 percent budget increase and we tried to keep it at that,” Blasdel said. “One of the things you have to do is negotiate with the governor and make some compromises, not all of which I was pleased with. But at the end of the day I think we put together a pretty good budget.”

“I’m really proud of the job we did with House Bill 2 (the budget bill),” Garner said. “We are responsible about those kinds of fiscal issues and we are definitely keeping the folks back home in mind.”

In an interview with the Beacon during the governor’s trip to Kalispell, Bullock pointed to the passage of three major bills in addition to the budget as successes: expansion of Medicaid health coverage to thousands of low-income Montanans, ratification of the Flathead tribal water rights compact, and a landmark campaign finance bill to crack down on and require public reporting of “dark money” spent by independent political groups.

On Medicaid expansion, the Flathead lawmakers were divided down the middle, with Regier, who served as majority leader, and Blasdel, serving his first term in the Senate, calling the measure a disappointment.

“I think all of us need to take a step back and look at the big picture,” Regier said. “We need to focus on building the private sector and increasing jobs rather than accepting hundreds of millions of dollars from a government that is deep in debt.”

The bill, called the Montana HELP (Health and Economic Livelihood) Plan and crafted by Republican Sen. Ed Buttrey, a businessman from Great Falls, includes provisions to make Medicaid assistance temporary with the goal of removing recipients from social programs.

Blasdel commended Buttrey for bringing a “business mind” to the measure, but said it didn’t go far enough.

“At the end of the day, it’s still Medicaid expansion,” Blasdel said.

Garner and Tutvedt both supported the expansion bill, which was seen as a compromise to Bullock’s earlier proposal to cover 70,000 Montanans.

Buttrey’s bill, which was backed by Republican leadership, expands health care to roughly 40,000 low-income Montanans.

Tutvedt said Kalispell Regional Medical Center is a major employer in the region. When the hospital provides health care to uninsured patients, they eat the costs, which isn’t good for business.

“We are going to be the experiment of the nation. Let’s be serious, when people show up at a hospital they get care and they get the most expensive care possible. Nobody is not getting health care, we are talking about doing it in a more efficient manner,” he said.

Chamber President Joe Unterreiner said the chamber supported both Medicaid expansion measures because it was good for the local health care industry.

The session’s final bone of contention was Senate Bill 416, the public works bill that requires at least $150 million in cash, bonding and borrowing authority to finance a slate of local public-works projects and construction of new state buildings on college campuses and elsewhere.

Some Republicans, including Regier, wanted less borrowing and more cash, while Democrats who worked to craft the bill said it struck a balance that demonstrated sound fiscal responsibility.

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