Legislative Roundup

With the transmittal deadline for bills with money attached to them approaching, the Montana Senate passed the last remaining Medicaid expansion bill of the session on a preliminary vote. 

By Michael Wright

Community News Service

UM School of Journalism

With the transmittal deadline for bills with money attached to them approaching, the Montana Senate passed the last remaining Medicaid expansion bill of the session on a preliminary vote.

Senate Bill 405, sponsored by Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, accepts federal money available under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid coverage to people earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level, estimated to be as many as 70,000 additional people.

The bill arrived at the Legislature late in the session, after the governor’s bill to do the same thing failed, as did a group of other Republican-backed Medicaid bills that would have covered fewer people.

Buttrey’s bill — also known as the Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership (HELP) Act — asks those receiving coverage to pay small premiums, and encourages them to take part in a job training program, which Buttrey said will help them find a “path out of poverty.”

“What we offer in the bill is not an entitlement, but an opportunity,” Buttrey said on the Senate floor last week.

Opponents of the bill tried to amend it, but a group of moderate Republicans and all Democrats voted down each amendment.

Sen. Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive, said the bill was merely the “implementation of Obamacare,” and that it had been given special treatment compared to other bills that have come through the Senate.

He said it was drafted by people outside the Capitol, and that it was brought to the floor through procedural maneuvering, since the bill was referred from one committee to another, and skipped executive action in its second committee.

“This bill has been shielded from the typical vetting process,” Rosendale said.

In the end, the coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans held and the bill passed 28-22.

Bill requiring companies to pay for shutting down Colstrip power plant clears Senate

The Senate passed a bill last week that would force companies to pay a hefty fee for shutting down coal plants in Montana.

Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, crafted a bill as fast as he could once he heard about a pair of bills in the Washington Legislature aimed at shutting down the coal plant in his hometown. He noted that one of those Washington bills has since been tabled, and the other has been amended to be a study bill instead.

Ankney said his bill was still needed because of a growing anti-coal sentiment in the country. He said he wants people to know that if they want to shut down a coal plant “you’re going to have to pay up some money, dude.”

The impact fee would bring tens of millions of dollars into the county.

Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, the bill’s co-sponsor, said the situation reminded him of what happened when mines in Butte were closed, and he and hundreds of others lost their jobs.

“The state of Washington don’t care about us,” Keane said. “If the state of Washington wants to fight, let’s fight.”

Opponents of the bill said it unfairly penalizes utility companies for making a business decision.

“It is a forseeable possibility that these plants will need to close down,” said Sen. Christine Kaufman, D-Helena.

The bill passed on a 28-19 vote.

Property damage liability change headed to the governor’s desk

A bill passed the Montana House last week that would limit how much someone would have to pay for unintentionally burning up their neighbor’s property.

Senate Bill 188, sponsored by Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, would ensure that people responsible for fire damage to someone else’s home or property would not pay more than the market value of the home prior to the fire.

Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, who carried the bill in the House, said it would restore the law to how it was before a district court awarded millions in damages to the community of Sunburst in a suit against Texaco.

In 1955, Texaco had an underground gas pipeline leak near Sunburst that polluted the water and soil, according to the Great Falls Tribune. In 2001, a class action suit was filed by the school district and residents of the town who were unhappy with Texaco’s cleanup efforts.

In a 2004 decision, a Cascade County jury ordered Texaco to pay $41 million in damages to the plaintiffs. That number far surpassed the market value of the land before the pollution, setting the precedent that a court could award someone more money than their property was originally worth.

Vincent’s bill is narrowly focused on fire damage.

Fitzpatrick said the court decision led to lawyers asking for excessive damages, citing a case where actual damage was about $1 million but attorneys asked for $38 million.

Opponents of the bill said it would leave victims unable to fully recover, arguing that sometimes people needed more than the market value of their property to recover.

“It could prevent people from being made whole,” said Rep. Randy Pinocci, R-Great Falls.

Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, supported the bill, saying he’d been through a lot of fires as a rancher and had lost property to them, but he wouldn’t be able to cover the cost of damage to someone else’s property.

“It could be me starting that fire,” Flynn said.

The bill passed on a 52-48 vote. It cleared the Senate on a 38-11 vote in February.

Student loan refinancing bill endorsed by House

A bill aimed at helping people pay back their private student loans with money from the state’s coal tax trust fund passed its first vote of the full House last week.

House Bill 610, sponsored by Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, would task the state Board of Investments with refinancing private student loans that carry an interest rate higher than 6 percent for some Montana residents.

Brown said the bill would actually earn money for the coal tax trust fund. The board would use $40 million from the coal tax trust fund to lower interest rates on the loans. They would collect the money and deposit it back into the fund.

“It’s meant to be for qualifying folks who have decent credit,” Brown said. “This isn’t a proposal to bust the trust.”

Support came from the Montana Organizing Project and student organizations from the two flagship state universities, Montana State University and the University of Montana.

Eric Feaver, the head of MEA-MFT, Montana’s teachers union, was the lone opponent of the bill. He said it challenged the constitution because it would let someone take state money and spend it at a religious school. He added that he doesn’t want the state to refinance loans that go to out of state schools.

Under the bill, a student could use the money to refinance loans at any college in the United States.

“I’m not sure it’s our responsibility as a state to refinance the loans of students who have gone to school out of state,” Feaver said.

The bill passed a preliminary vote in the full House on Saturday.

Shelby prison study heard in committee.

A House committee tabled a resolution to study Montana’s only private-run prison last week.

Senate Joint Resolution 3, sponsored by Sen. Robyn Driscoll, D-Billings, proposes an interim study of the Crossroads Correctional Center near Shelby. The state’s contract with the company that runs the prison is up in 2019, and at that point the state can decide to close it, take it over or continue with the company.

Driscoll said the Law and Justice Interim Committee heard stories of abuse and mistreatment at the prison, and that a study is needed.

“This is a taxpayer funded contract,” said Sheena Rice, of the Montana Organizing Project. “We need to evaluate it.”

Corrections Corporation of America, the company that runs the prison, opposed the resolution. Mark Baker, a lawyer representing the company, said they were confident in their professionalism and the service they offer. He added that he wanted to see the study be more holistic and include other parts of the corrections system.

“We view our partnership with the state as an important piece in the corrections puzzle,” Baker said. “Crossroads is just one piece of the corrections puzzle.”

Driscoll said that if they are confident in their service they should support the study.

“If CCA is confident,” Driscoll said, “Why would they not be a strong proponent?”

The bill was tabled the day after the hearing.

Education tax credit measure draws little support

School choice has been a recurring topic at the Montana Legislature, and Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, has an idea he hopes might end the discussion.

“These topics are here continuously,” Jones said, adding that his bill “moves this issue toward closure.”

A Senate committee last week advanced  Senate Bill 410, which would give people a $150 tax credit either for donating to an organization that offers scholarships for private school tuition or choosing to put part of their taxes toward education.

This is different from  other school choice bills, which tend to focus on helping parents who choose private schools. The scholarship organization tax credit is meant to reward those on the private side, while the education improvement account is for those on the public side.

The bill had only one supporter during its hearing.

Dave Puyear, of the Montana Rural Education Association, said it was likely the first time he’d supported a measure like this, and that he liked the portion of the bill that gave more money to public schools, where he said more funding is “sorely needed.”

Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the teachers’ union, opposed the bill, saying much of the money donated to a scholarship organization would go to religious and parochial schools, which Feaver claims is unconstitutional.

“I don’t know why a union of educators has to defend the constitution,” Feaver said.

The School Administrators of Montana, Montana Quality Education Coalition and the governor’s office joined Feaver in opposition.

Jones had another bill that would have put the measure on the ballot for the voters to decide, which was tabled.

Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at michael.wright@umontana.edu.  Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.