HELENA – In a rare display of raw political power at the Montana Legislature, all House Democrats and 11 House Republicans on Wednesday muscled a Medicaid expansion bill to the House floor, where it will be debated and voted on Thursday.
Through a half-dozen votes spread over two hours, the bipartisan voting bloc repeatedly formed a 52-vote majority to overturn actions of House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, and force the decisive vote that removed Senate Bill 405 from the House committee that voted Tuesday to kill the measure.
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, led the effort, saying it’s time for the House to have a “good debate (on this bill) and vote it up or down.”
SB405 would accept hundreds of millions of federal dollars to expand Medicaid health coverage to thousands of low-income Montanans, starting next year. It will be debated on the House floor Thursday evening and face a floor vote before possibly advancing to a final vote later this week.
SB405, sponsored by Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, would extend Medicaid coverage to Montanans earning up 138 percent of the federal poverty level, about $16,200 a year for a single person. It’s estimated that 27,000 people would sign up in the first year and as many as 45,000 by 2019.
The federal government would cover the bulk of the cost, but eligible participants also would have to pay a premium of 2 percent of their income.
Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad – one of the 11 Republicans voting to bring the bill to the floor – said he’ll be presenting it on the floor Thursday evening.
Cook said he’s supporting it because it will bring federal tax money paid by Montanans back to the state to cover millions of dollars’ worth of health care that is written off by hospitals and other providers.
“All totaled, it’s been $600 million (in three years) and the Republican position has been just to light that money on fire and ignore that there’s an issue,” he said. “What brought me around to this sort of action was the last six years of 'no' from the Republican Party, an unwillingness to work on a health care solution at all.”
House Republican leadership opposes the Medicaid bill as a needless, costly expansion of a welfare program and additional implementation of “Obamacare” in Montana. Federal funds pay 100 percent of the expansion cost through 2016, but then gradually reduce its share to 90 percent by 2020.
On Tuesday, Republicans on the House Human Services Committee voted to give SB405 a “do-not-pass” recommendation, which kills the bill unless at least three-fifths of the House votes otherwise.
But Hunter said Tuesday the committee vote violated an agreement that allowed Democrats to designate certain bills as needing only 51 votes to remove them from a committee, rather than 60 votes.
Knudsen ruled Hunter’s objection as “out of order” Tuesday and the House Rules Committee upheld Knudsen on Wednesday, but on a series of 52-48 votes, the House overruled Knudsen and said the 51-vote rule applied to SB405.
The House then voted 52-48 to remove the bill from the House Human Services Committee and place it on the floor Thursday.
Opponents of SB405 strenuously objected to the maneuvers on Wednesday. Rep. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, the chair of the House Human Services Committee, said the 51-vote rule couldn’t apply because the bill was no longer technically in his committee.
“By the motion allowing 51 percent of this body to affect the order of this body, we now have the law of the jungle,” Wittich said.
Knudsen also made a personal appeal to House Republicans, before the voting began Wednesday, to uphold his decisions on the rules, calling Wednesday “arguably one of the biggest days of the session.”
“There were no games played; there were no rules broken,” he said. “The rules were followed. … What I am here for, is to implore you not to throw the rules out.”
In addition to Cook, Republicans voting with Democrats to move SB405 to the floor were Reps. Christy Clark of Choteau, Roy Hollandsworth of Brady, Frank Garner of Kalispell, Geraldine Custer of Forsyth, Tom Berry of Roundup, Tom Richmond of Billings, Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls, Ray Shaw of Sheridan, Jeff Welborn of Dillon and Dan Salomon of Ronan.
Cook said later while much will be made of the split in the Republican Party over Medicaid expansion, lawmakers on both sides of the issue think they’re doing the right thing for the state.
“When you look at the (voting) board today, 48 people thought they were doing the right thing and 52 people thought they were doing the right thing,” he said. “So we should keep that in mind as we move forward.”