Governor Steve Bullock has proposed an ambitious and comprehensive budget plan for the Legislature to begin considering next week.
He is insisting on a meaningful rainy-day fund – a reserve of $300 million. In previous sessions, Republicans have pushed back on that, saying the state doesn’t need such a big cushion.
Several other things in the budget will doubtless cause friction. Bullock proposes an increase in the tax on tobacco, a renewal of Medicaid expansion, and an undeniably needed $290 million infrastructure package that contains a couple of items some that have been flash points with Republicans in the past – funding for the Romney Hall renovation at Montana State University and new construction for the Montana Historical Society.
Beyond that, he seeks to expand and continue the state’s investment in early education; freeze college tuition; and invest in financial aid for students, including returning adult learners.
The key debates will surround Medicaid expansion and infrastructure.
In 2015, a group of Republicans in the Legislature worked with Democrats to expand Medicaid. The proposal has resulted in Montana’s rate of uninsured dropping from 20 percent down to about 7 percent. Nearly 100,000 Montanans – nearly 10 percent of the population, including many veterans – have become insured under the program.
Uncompensated health care costs have dropped by nearly 50 percent since the expansion passage, throwing a lifeline to many rural and smaller hospitals in the state.
Some Republicans are sayng we just can’t afford that kind of progress – that the price tag is simply too high.
Bullock argues that expansion has actually paid big dividends, infusing $500 million in new dollars into the state’s economy.
There are many ways to look at this, we understand. We appreciate the concern of those who say the price of such coverage is not sustainable in Montana. But we believe the price of rolling expansion back ultimately would be much steeper. We fully expect that a coalition similar to that of 2015 will extend expansion. There is certainly a chance that new work rules may go into effect, and while those are well-intentioned, to protect taxpayers from getting soaked by those who simply want coverage without without working, such rules have led to bigger government and more expense in states like Arkansas. Some have asserted that the bureaucratic apparatus of job-rule verification in the state greatly outstripped the rule’s benefits, and caused confusion and disruption.
We are neither convinced that the current system is unsustainable or that it is being widely abused by those who don’t wish to work – particularly since the state’s unemployment rate is even lower than the nation’s.
In fact we believe expansion has greatly helped small businesses in Montana who are unable to offer their employees company insurance plans.
Bullock points out that the expansion has saved the state money as well as expanding the economy, because of the higher federal share of the cost under the program. He says that if expansion is allowed to sunset in Montana, federal funds will simply transfer to other states. His office asserts that 7 of 10 people on Medicaid are working and 8 of 10 live in working families. In fact, the governor is proposing additional money to help with job services for Medicaid recipients so that even more of them can find work.
We know that words will be sharp on both sides of the aisle, but we hope that leadership, in the main, can avoid the kind of acrimony and lack of collaboration that marked the 2017 session.
One encouraging sign, we believe, is the support by many key Republicans of a measure to remove supermajority requirements to move bills in the House of Representatives.
If Democrats and Republicans can truly work together in the coming session, we will see significant progress on issues like health care, education and infrastructure – something that the state has desperately needed for a long time.
We encourage Montanans to keep in close touch with their elected representatives in the Legislature during the session and to make known their preference for progress and collaboration, not gridlock and acrimony.