Special session of MT Legislature next week looks unlikely

Posted at 4:45 PM, Jul 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-09 18:45:53-04

An attempt to call a special session of the Montana Legislature next week is probably dead, as enough Republican “no” votes have been cast to require Democratic help to approve it – an unlikely prospect.

As of Monday morning, 19 of the Legislature’s 91 Republican lawmakers had voted against the session, meaning that even with all 72 remaining Republicans in favor, they still would fall three votes short of the needed 75-person majority to call the session.

Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, one of the supporters of the session, conceded Monday afternoon that the special session likely won’t be approved.

“It’s done,” he told MTN News. “It’s a sad day when Republicans won’t support industry in Montana.”

No Democratic lawmaker had voted for the special session as of Monday, and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s office has denounced the idea as “absurd.” Cook said he’d be surprised if any Democratic legislator votes for the session.

Cook and a group of fellow Republicans initiated the effort two weeks ago, formally asking colleagues to call a special session starting July 16, to consider proposals that could compete with and override two ballot measures on mining and tobacco taxes.

Initiative 185 would increase state tobacco taxes by $2 on a pack of cigarettes and extend Medicaid expansion, which gives government-supported medical coverage to 96,000 low-income adults. Initiative 186 would require new hard-rock mines to have cleanup plans that don’t require perpetual treatment of polluted runoff.

Neither measure has qualified for the November ballot, but supporters have turned in what appear to be more than enough voter signatures to certify both measures. Certification should happen later this month.

Republicans in favor of the special session wanted it to place two alternative voter referenda on the ballot in a special election next year, to override initiatives 185 and 186, if they pass.

By Monday, only 31 lawmakers had voted to convene the special session – all of them Republicans – and 52 had voted against it, including 19 Republicans.

Approval from at least 75 of the current 149 legislators is needed to approve a special session. It usually takes 76 votes, but one of Montana’s 150 legislative seats is vacant.

Republicans who favored the session said I-185 and I-186, if passed, will harm the economy and the state budget, and that voters should be given a chance to choose an alternative.

While state Senate Republican leaders favored the push for a special session, Republican House Speaker Austin Knudsen of Culbertson opposed it. He sent a lengthy email to fellow Republicans in late June, saying the session would be politically damaging for the GOP.

Cook also said that by opposing a special session, Democrats are gambling that I-185 will pass and extend Medicaid expansion, which they support.

“Democrats have to recognize if Medicaid expansion fails at the ballot box in November, it’s done in this state,” he said, predicting that Republicans would not vote to extend it. “They’re playing a zero-sum game.”

Republicans control majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Medicaid expansion is set to expire next June – unless the Legislature or voters choose to extend it.

I-185 would raise tobacco taxes by about $50 million a year, permanently extend Medicaid expansion, and use part of that money to pay the state share of the program’s costs. The federal government is scheduled to pay 90 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion by 2020.

Medicaid expansion pays the health-care bills for about 96,000 low-income Montanans and is estimated to cost at least $500 million a year, in federal and state funds.

The tobacco industry already is preparing to fight I-185 and the mining industry will be opposing I-186, if the measures qualify for the ballot.

Republicans for the special session wanted to proposed an alternative to I-185, that would still raise some tobacco taxes and extend Medicaid expansion, but that also would place some restrictions on who could be covered by the program.