Lawmakers predict Medicaid expansion will dominate session

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Rep. Frank Garner, a retired Kalispell police chief, hopes to buckle up a tougher seat-belt law during the upcoming gathering in Helena of state lawmakers.

The Republican’s House Bill 49 would allow law enforcement to pull over a vehicle if one of its occupants is not wearing a seat belt. The fine for not wearing a seat belt would increase from $20 to $45, but a first violation would trigger only a warning.

Separately, Senate Bill 65, introduced by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, would revise laws regarding driving under the influence.

“It better defines DUI as including drugs as well as alcohol, strengthens the evaluation and treatment options for substance abuse, better defines types of monitoring of second and subsequent offenses and improves getting warrants for refusal to take a breathalyzer test,” Regier said.

Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, favors a bill that would cut off voter registration on the Friday before a Tuesday election instead of allowing registration to continue on Election Day itself.

These three legislators will join other lawmakers from the region and the state in wrestling this session with whether to continue Medicaid expansion beyond its expiration on June 30.

A sample of regional legislators contacted for this article also said they plan to vigorously watchdog the legislative and budgeting process.

The 66th legislative session begins Monday and is scheduled to end May 1. The Legislature meets in regular session for up to 90 working days during every odd-numbered year.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget proposal for the 2021 biennium includes keeping the Montana Health and Economic Partnerships Act, also known as the HELP Act, which expands Medicaid in the state.

This week, Regier expressed opposition to re-authorizing the expansion, noting voters in November defeated an initiative that would have taxed tobacco products to help fund continued expansion.

“The people of Montana spoke very clear when they defeated I-185,” Regier said. “For the governor and some legislators to try to get expansion through the legislature is political arrogance.”

Garner said he favors reforming Medicaid expansion, a stance echoed by at least a few other Republicans in the region.

A legislative preview held Dec. 11 in Kalispell featured a panel discussion whose participants included Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, and Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, along with Sen. Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, who is Senate president.

The men agreed that day that some variation of Medicaid expansion is likely to pass during the session.

At the time, Blasdel observed, “How do you get some personal responsibility and accountability built into the process?”

Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, said she plans this session to “get a better understanding of Medicaid.”

Proponents of continuing Medicaid expansion cite a host of benefits, noting that more than 96,000 Montanans are enrolled and receiving health services instead of going without. They say academic research shows that Medicaid expansion can be linked to gains in jobs and personal income through increased economic activity.

Bullock’s proposed 2021 biennium budget suggests expansion “has created and sustained over 5,000 new jobs and infuses $500 million in new dollars into the state’s economy each year.”

Meanwhile, on Friday, Rep. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, said he was packing for Helena.

“My priorities for the session are the same that I campaigned on, to wit: no new taxes; a constitutionally mandated balanced budget; reducing the inefficiency, fraud and waste in state government; and, protecting and enhancing the lives of all Montanans, including the unborn, young, elderly and veterans,” Fuller said.

Brown, who has previously argued for reducing the use of de-icer on Montana roads, plans to raise the issue again this session, she said.

Regier said his priorities “will be the same as previous sessions: lower taxes and make government responsive to the citizens of Montana.”

Garner said his priorities will include passing a responsible balanced budget; restoring funding for mental-health interventions; passing an inflationary increase for public education; investing in infrastructure; improving public safety; and, limiting regulatory burdens on business.

Garner said he wants constituents to know “that they have a tireless advocate that puts them first in all business before the state.”

Brown offered a similar statement.

“Every day I go to work I have constituents on my mind,” she said.

Montana’s 150-member legislative body is considered a citizen Legislature. The Senate has 50 members and the House has 100. Montana voters elect legislators to serve part-time in addition to other employment.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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