Like I Was Saying

Legislative Sidestep

Legislators who oppose I-185 say the initiative is sidestepping the intention of Montana’s one-of-a-kind Medicaid expansion

With all the political noise at the national level, it’s easy for that D.C. megaphone to drown out local issues that will affect many of us. That is, unless you turn on the television.

While money in politics is nothing new, the sheer amount of cash being poured into the debate over Initiative 185 is inescapable. And, as many Montanans are about to receive their mail-in ballots, it’s only bound to get worse.

The Associated Press reported last week that opponents to I-185 were spending a whopping $895,000 a week on advertisements. Since we’re a relatively cheap market, those dollars (almost entirely from big tobacco companies) are everywhere: cable, online, streaming services, you name it.

The initiative would do a few things. First it would increase the tobacco tax, including by $2 on a pack of cigarettes. It would also substantially raise taxes on e-cigarettes and vaping products. That money would then be used to help fund Medicaid expansion, health-related programs and some would go to the state’s general fund.

If passed, Montana’s tobacco tax would be among the highest in the country at $3.70. That’s higher than California’s or Washington state’s. And, despite that, opponents argue the measure is akin to an unfunded mandate since the tax alone won’t provide enough funds to cover the cost of Medicaid expansion. Irritated vapers are also wondering why their products are being taxed since they contain no tobacco.

Supporters of the measure argue that everyone is already paying for tobacco use in health-related expenses even if they don’t smoke and the initiative will save thousands of lives. And, in regard to vaping, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared the use of the product among teens an epidemic.

Perhaps the biggest driving force of the initiative, however, is the obvious uncertainty that the Legislature will pass Medicaid expansion when it’s scheduled to sunset in 2019. Remember, Montana lawmakers only passed the legislation on a trial basis in 2015 and even that was a struggle.

When the bill was written, Republican Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, who introduced the compromise proposal, estimated that 45,000 people would sign up. It has proven far more popular, with more than 90,000 Montanans – or about one in seven working adults – now enrolled in the program. Subsequently, it is costing the state far more than initial projections.

Legislators who oppose I-185 say the initiative is sidestepping the intention of Montana’s one-of-a-kind Medicaid expansion, which was always meant to be reauthorized in 2019.

Rep. David “Doc” Moore wrote in recent guest column that by eliminating the sunset provision, the initiative is “permanently locking in the current Medicaid expansion law and stripping away the Legislature’s plans to address costs, evaluate effectiveness and discontinue parts of the legislation that don’t work.”

He’s absolutely right. And while the televised argument over I-185 mostly focuses on either unfunded mandates or protecting kids from tobacco, the real argument is over whether you think the Legislature will continue Medicaid expansion beyond 2019.

It’s clear a lot of people don’t. If they did, we would be able to escape the onslaught of ads because I-185 wouldn’t exist.