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Medicaid expansion, Colstrip bills entwined as Legislature enters final weeks

Posted: 9:51 PM, Apr 10, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-10 23:51:13-04

HELENA — Lawmakers delayed action Wednesday on two of the biggest bills at the 2019 Legislature — Medicaid expansion and the so-called “save Colstrip” bill — as their respective fates appear to be part of final negotiations in the last two weeks of the Legislature.

The bill to continue Montana’s $700 million-a-year Medicaid expansion program had been scheduled for debate and a vote on the Senate floor Wednesday, one of its last stops before likely heading to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk for his signature.

But leaders of the Republican majority announced Wednesday afternoon that the vote would be delayed until Thursday, as they waited for a new fiscal summary of House Bill 658 and possibly more proposed amendments.

Yet Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, a big supporter of the Colstrip bill, confirmed to reporters later that another reason for the delay is concern whether Bullock, a Democrat, will accept the Colstrip bill — which has been strongly criticized by Democrats.

MT Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip

Ankney said he’d spoken with the governor’s office earlier Wednesday, and indicated that amendments to Senate Bill 331 may be in the works, to make it more palatable to the governor.

“There’s always drama (in the final days),” he said.

The Colstrip bill — Senate Bill 331 — had been scheduled for a vote Wednesday afternoon in the House Federal Relations, Energy and Telecommunications Committee. But Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, said that vote has been delayed until Friday.

When asked by MTN News earlier Wednesday whether he could support SB331 in its current form, Bullock said “I continue to have skepticism that 331, in its current form, is really a good deal for Montana.”

SB331, co-sponsored by Sen. Ankney and Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, is meant to encourage the state’s largest electric utility, NorthWestern Energy, to buy a larger portion of the Colstrip 4 power plant. It guarantees that NorthWestern can charge its customers up to $75 million over 10 years for any new capital expenditures at the plant.

Gov. Steve Bullock

Legislative Republicans, especially in the Senate, have made SB331 one of their top priorities, saying it will help prolong the life of the Colstrip power plant and provide lower-cost, reliable power into the future.

Democrats and other critics have attacked the bill as “corporate welfare” that shifts any risk for buying the plant from NorthWestern to its customers.

The Senate approved the bill last month on a mostly party-line vote, with Republicans in favor. It has yet to face a vote in the House.

The Medicaid expansion bill passed the House last month and is now on the Senate floor. Medicaid expansion provides government-funded health coverage to 95,000 low-income adults in the state.

A coalition of minority Democrats and moderate Republicans is expected to pass HB658 in the Senate, but several Republicans told MTN News Wednesday that Thursday’s vote will be closer than expected, because some Republicans are upset about a variety of issues, including whether the Colstrip bill will be approved.

For example, Sen. Jeff Welborn of Dillon, who supported approval of Medicaid expansion in 2015, said he thinks hospitals and other members of the medical community have done a poor job of selling the program to a skeptical public — leaving Republican lawmakers to take the heat from people in their districts.

“We’re always expected to line up and carry these big bills, and what do we get for that?” he asked. “It should be a partnership, between lawmakers and (Medicaid) supporters.”

Lawmakers also have another two weeks to pass the state’s final two-year budget, meaning they’ll have to sift through a number of bills that spend money and decide which ones will pass — or not. The scheduled final day of the 2019 session is May 1.