House Speaker: Water compact not likely to pass

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Just before the Legislature started a four-day Easter recess Thursday,  House Speaker Mark Blasdel shared some observations on the biggest topics of the week in Helena: Medicaid expansion and a water compact for the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes.

Blasdel said he does not expect that legislation to ratify the water rights compact will pass during this session.

A compact bill was the subject of a two-hour hearing Wednesday that included three busloads of opponents that arrived from the Mission Valley, said Blasdel, a Republican from Somers.

“A lot of folks came down to testify against it,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of issues.”

Blasdel said he doesn’t believe the bill will have the votes to pass because of divisions over the compact, most notably a Lake County District Court ruling in February that one of three major components of the compact — a water use agreement for irrigators on the Flathead Reservation — is unconstitutional.

“A third of the compact is still in court, and that’s a big deal,” Blasdel said.

Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, was a member of the compact commission and he supports the legislation to ratify it, but Salomon recently stated that he doesn’t believe it has the support to pass.

Salomon introduced alternative legislation this week that would assign a legislative committee to review the compact over the next couple years.

“This compact needs time for people to understand it,” Blasdel said.

Legislation backed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to expand Medicaid enrollment in Montana by up to 70,000 people died in committee Wednesday night.

Blasdel said that like the compact, it is legislation burdened with too many unknowns for a reluctant Republican majority in the House.

“There are still discussions about how do you reform the program we have right now,” Blasdel said, noting that there are still a couple of Medicaid expansion bills in the Senate.

But those bills, he said, also call for “full expansion with no reforms and no mechanisms for cost restraints.”

Perhaps the biggest concern among GOP lawmakers is that the federal government eventually will scale back financial support for a much larger Medicaid program, Blasdel said.

He added that Republicans do not put much stock in a provision that would terminate the expansion if federal funding support drops below 90 percent.

“You’re not going to end a program for 70,000 people once it’s started,” he said. “There are so many unanswered questions to all this ... that I really think it’s putting the state and taxpayers at risk without having these questions answered.”

In a statement, Bullock blasted Republicans for tabling the Medicaid legislation he favors.

“Today, legislators who signed up for taxpayer-funded health care for themselves and profess a desire to create jobs, said ‘no’ to health care for thousands of others, ‘no’ to creating thousands of jobs and ‘no’ to the thousands of constituents who contacted them supporting this measure,” Bullock said.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.

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