HELENA – Legislative Democrats on Monday blasted Republicans for killing Gov. Steve Bullock’s Medicaid expansion proposal in committee last Friday night, saying procedural rules were violated – but stopped short of trying to overturn the action on the House floor.
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, rose on the floor to object to a committee report killing the Medicaid expansion bill, saying Republicans on the House Human Services Committee improperly voted before Democrats could debate or amend the bill.
“It’s a clear violation of our rights (under the rules),” he said. “This is a clear abuse of the power of the committee’s chairman.”
Yet the chairman of the committee, Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman, told reporters later Monday that no rules violations occurred, and if Hunter wanted to press the issue, he could have appealed to the House Rules Committee and the full body.
“I think that was a bit of political theater on the House floor today,” he said. “It was political grandstanding.”
Instead, Hunter's objection means the House will vote Tuesday whether to accept or overturn the committee's "do not pass" report on House Bill 249, which would accept millions of federal dollars to expand Medicaid to cover up to 70,000 low-income Montanans who have no health insurance.
It takes 60 votes in the 100-member House to overturn a do-not-pass report on a bill and allow the House to consider the measure. Any lesser vote means the report is adopted and the bill is dead. Democrats have acknowledged they don't have enough GOP votes to help them reach the 60-vote threshold. Republicans hold a 59-41 majority in the chamber.
In fact, Hunter conceded Monday he didn’t have enough votes to muster the simple majority needed to win a rules battle on the House floor and possibly force further action on HB249.
“We don’t want to waste our 'silver bullets' or other actions where we don’t have the count,” he said, referring to actions that could be used to bring any bill to the floor with 51 votes instead of the usually required 60 votes.
Monday’s partisan tilt marked the latest tussle over Medicaid expansion, easily one of the most contentious issues before the 2015 Legislature.
Bullock and Democrats at the Legislature – and some Republicans – want to accept approximately $700 million in federal money the next two years and into the future to expand Medicaid, to provide largely free health care coverage to Montanans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
For a single person, that’s about $16,200 a year.
Republican leadership at the Legislature has vowed to block the full expansion, saying it’s an unnecessary expansion of a welfare program that will cost the state tens of millions of dollars every year in the future.
They’ve advanced their own proposal that expands Medicaid on a much smaller level, to cover about 10,000 low-income parents, veterans and disabled people.
A third Medicaid proposal, from Republican Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, is expected to be introduced this week.
The House Human Services Committee voted 10-7 on party lines late Friday night to kill HB249, after a 6 1/2-hour hearing. Scores of people traveled from across the state to testify at the hearing for the expansion, telling personal stories about how they can’t afford health care without government coverage.
At a news conference and rally Monday, Democrats and advocates for HB249 ripped into Republicans on the committee for ignoring the broad support and refusing to even debate the bill before voting to kill it.
“Republicans on that committee committed one of the most blatant acts of political cowardice I’ve ever witnessed,” said Jacquie Helt, state director of SEIU Health Care 775NW, a union representing home health care workers.
Wittich, however, said Republicans won majorities at the Legislature by running on less government, and just because more supporters showed up Friday for HB249 doesn’t mean it should pass.
“Most people in Montana do not want to increase government or grow our welfare state,” he said.
Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay, the sponsor of HB249, said while Republicans have blocked his bill, the fight for Medicaid expansion isn’t over.
“We are ready and will continue to be ready to negotiate (on the issue),” he told supporters. “We will continue this fight ... so that these 70,000 Montanans (can get coverage). This fight has not ended until this Legislature (adjourns).”