U.S. Sen. Jon Tester told legislators Tuesday to think beyond politics when deciding on votes for Medicaid expansion, education funding and workers compensation for firefighters.
Only a few weeks after swearing in for his third term, the Big Sandy Democrat addressed the Montana House of Representatives. Addresses from Montana’s delegation are a longstanding tradition in the Legislature with upcoming speeches from Republicans Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte scheduled in the coming weeks.
Tester kicked off his speech praising Montana’s citizen legislature.
“We in Montana have a Legislature the way the forefathers had asked us to set it up, the way they thought it should be set up, where we elect our neighbors to represent us in the house and the senate,” he said.
Tester focused his speech on issues expected to highlight the next 78 days of the Legislature, the top among them being the future of Medicaid expansion, which insures about 1 in 10 Montanans.
The 2015 bill passed to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act sunsets this year. Debate has centered around whether or not to continue the program or to restructure it with provisions such as work requirements.
“A couple of years ago this Legislature passed Medicaid expansion, and if you’re after dollars and cents it’s been very successful,” he said, pointing to cost savings and revenues linked to the program. “… I would say to those of you that make that decision which is all of you, don’t make it a political issue, make it about people.”
Tester told the House that he hears from constituents around the state who have benefited under Medicaid expansion. He relayed a story about a man from Butte suffering from both physical and mental health issues. Under Medicaid expansion the man successfully secured care and has been able to hold down a job for the first time in his adult life, he said.
“Make sure if the effort is to reduce the number of people on Medicaid expansion, ask yourself what’s going to happen to those 40,000 or 50,000 that will get their health care taken away,” he said. “If it’s to eliminate the program, I’d ask you to take a look at your small hospitals around the state.”
Tester then shifted to education, encouraging lawmakers to fund both K-12 and higher education as a societal foundation. Dollars not funded at the state level must be made up in local property taxes, he said, reminding legislators of the importance of teachers and the need to offer adequate wages.
“I can tell you right now there are far too many teachers in our state that are Medicaid eligible or on food stamps. That is unacceptable,” Tester said. “If we want to get the best people in the classroom we have to be competitive with other sectors in Montana.”
The costs of higher education have become crippling for many students, often resulting in tens of thousands in student loans, he continued.
“That’s not the way it should be, we should be encouraging people to go to college, to be trained, it will drive our economy, it will drive small businesses, it will help drive our entrepreneur sector moving forward,” Tester said.
Tester acknowledged that these programs cost money and lawmakers have difficult decisions ahead of them.
In the closing of his address, Tester said he hoped the Legislature would continue to push measures to prevent suicide, take up tuition programs or tax credits for veterans and pass a long debated presumptive illness bill for firefighters, which would make it easier to receive worker compensation benefits for job-related lung diseases.
“You have an opportunity here to do right by our first responders,” Tester said of the firefighter legislation.
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin
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