Local legislators gave their assessment of the 66th Legislature at a luncheon at The Catered Table in Stevensville last week, sponsored by the Stevensville Main Street Association.
Senator Fred Thomas (R-Stevensville) gave the 66th legislative session a thumbs up in general.
“Not all our bills survived, some were vetoed, but we did our job,” said Thomas.
He said first and foremost they got a balanced budget passed.
One of the big bills to be passed this session, no matter how you feel about it, he said, was the Medicaid expansion bill which was set to sunset at the end of the month.
“Like it or not, that did get done and it is tighter with more controls than there used to be,” he said.
He said they did bump funding for K-12 schools in the state to cover the costs of inflation.
He called some of the education legislation “very innovative.” He said that while the federal government spends most of its money on human services, the state spends more of its funds on education.
“But this session was the first time we made some solid reforms in funding education,” he said. He said the state was going to be putting more money into areas of technical training. He said by allowing the money to follow the student instead of the school, a student could decide to take the last year of school to enter a technical training program that might further a career choice that doesn’t necessarily require college.
Thomas said that some gains were made in lowering the costs of individual health insurance with a mechanism for re-insurance.
Legislation was also put in place to allow the state to negotiate with private.
“We are going to try to work with landowners to get an agreement that would allow sportsmen to transgress their property legally to access public lands beyond,” he said.
He said they also passed some legislation that takes (more of) the politics out of infrastructure funding with a bonding bill of $80 million. The legislation actually allocated a total of $2.7 billion for infrastructure construction projects over the next two years.
He said locally, the Daly Mansion got $400,000 for infrastructure, and funding for state parks was increased as well, which may benefit Fort Owen State Park.
Rep. Nancy Ballance (R-Hamilton), who serves on the appropriations committee, was happy about the budget.
“Revenue is stronger than ever,” she said, after being down in 2017-2018. As a result, cuts made in special session have been restored.
“We put more money into health care facilities and nursing homes” she said, “and into education. We expanded Medicaid and added inflation funding for special needs.” She said school safety was also funded.
Seven economic development programs set to sunset were extended. But they did remove completely the research and commercialization funding. She said it went to areas where universities were located and was used to fund long term projects that took money away from rural areas that really need the help. She said it should put $1.2 million into local programs.
Ballance also touted the Advanced Opportunities Act which allows schools to partner with local businesses. Instead of purchasing expensive equipment for training, the schools can work with local businesses who have the equipment. By having the money follow the student, they can opt for an education aimed at getting them directly into the workforce. She said they got a formal agreement from the University of Montana to make it a priority to promote technical education.
“Medicaid expansion, like it or not,” she said, “if you don’t have a healthy work force, you can have all the training in the world and yet if you are not taking care of people falling through the cracks with addiction and with mental disabilities not covered. Medicaid expansion fills that gap,” she said, “and we tightened it up so it isn’t going to able bodied people but goes to those who need it.”
Rep. Sharon Greef (R-Florence) encouraged everyone to go to Helena and see a legislative session. She called it “a humbling experience.” She said the 66th session was busy. “It was hard, it was frustrating, but very, very fruitful,” she said.
She said they got the budget balanced and, “We have a healthy rainy day fund and an amazing infrastructure account with some wonderful projects.”
Greef said that she had no intention of voting for the Medicaid bill when she went to Helena. “My ideas were pretty set. But the more I learned about the risk it would create for Montanans, I realized it was the right thing to do for Montana.” She said it was a very different bill with sideboards on it.
“There are work requirements and asset tests,” she said. It is not only taking care of people that are desperate, this is also providing jobs in the medical fields and in construction.”
“If we didn’t pass this bill we realized that hospitals like Marcus Daly would probably go under and people with no insurance will go to the emergency room for their treatments and then be unable to pay. We live in a different world than we did in 2015 when this bill was first passed. We have a tremendous drug problem at this time. This was the best thing to do.”
She said Montana is paying 10% of the program costs, but that if the federal government lowers its contribution from the 90% level, Montana’s bill will automatically sunset.
Greef said that she was happy to vote for an increase in the amount of green timber that is allowed to be harvested. She also carried a bill that would establish “grandparents’ rights” which would allow grandparents to be considered next in custody in cases of child relocation issues.