HELENA - Gov. Steve Bullock is ramping up the pressure on lawmakers by taking his Medicaid expansion request, one of the legislative session's bigger issues, straight to his constituents.
Bullock has been touring the state selling his proposal, and he pitched it Thursday to the Helena Chamber of Commerce.
Access Health Montana would use federal money allotted in the federal health care bill to expand Medicaid to as many as 70,000 Montanans. The plan needs legislative approval.
The Democrat argues the influx of federal money will create thousands of new health care jobs in the state, while expanding insurance coverage. But Republican legislative critics say the state shouldn't rely on federal funding that could dry up in a future budget crisis.
Bullock is taking his case directly to groups around the state, and asking them to help persuade GOP leaders to embrace the proposal. He is also meeting with newspaper editorial boards, resulting in several endorsements of the proposal.
He argues that Montana's share of the federal money will be used in other states if Montana rejects it.
"We create jobs with this money, or these tax dollars of ours simply go someplace else,'' Bullock told Helena Chamber of Commerce representatives in his office Thursday.
He asked the group to tell their local lawmakers that the proposal will help small businesses, pointing to the expansion of the economy and other factors.
Bullock also asked the business group for its support advancing a plan to borrow money at low rates to build educational and other facilities around the state. Supporters say the plan will create construction jobs while improving training facilities for technical jobs — while opponents argue the state shouldn't borrow money and doesn't need more buildings to maintain.
Bullock has introduced the Medicaid expansion plan and a sponsor for it, but so far the bill is still being drafted and it has yet to be pitched to a committee.
The governor has said the state would pay only a small share, about $5 million according to early estimates, of the cost under the federal health care law. But Republicans argue the state's share of the cost will grow as the federal government struggles to pay for expansion nationwide.
On Wednesday, Senate President Jeff Essmann pushed back against pressure being applied on the issue. The Billings Republican said there are 67 lobbyists in the Capitol working for hospital and medical groups pushing a bill, arguing the expansion would reduce the amount of uncompensated care medical providers give the uninsured.
The Republican indicated the pressure could be hard to resist, comparing the medical lobby to a common term used for the state's 20th century mining barons who were accused of using their financial might to run Helena politics.
"The copper collar has been replaced with the hospital collar,'' Essmann said.