Bullock outlines priorities in State of the State, lawmakers debate numerous proposals

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

In his final State of the State address Thursday, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock laid out his priorities for this legislative session, including Medicaid expansion, access and funding for education, and repairing Montana’s crumbling infrastructure.

Bullock also used the speech to highlight a lower unemployment rate, increases in wheat and barley production and fewer uninsured Montanans since he took office in 2013.

“I am pleased to report the state of our state is stronger than ever,” Bullock said.

In his push for Medicaid expansion, Bullock emphasized the economic benefits of the program to businesses and the economy, rather than just the gains of Medicaid recipients.

“I have heard about the need to support our businesses. With almost three out of every five of businesses in our state relying on Medicaid to provide healthcare for at least some of their employees, you aren’t supporting our businesses big and small if you roll back the gains we’ve made with Medicaid expansion,” Bullock said.

A recent study from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana found that Medicaid expansion introduced up to $400 million of spending in the state’s economy.

Bullock also ticked off advancements in K-12 and college education in Montana, saying under his administration, the state has increased access to internet in schools, helped enroll more high school students in dual credit programs, and froze tuition for Montana University System students.

“The future leaders of our state deserve no less,” he said.

The governor also made the case for his proposed $30 million public preschool program.

Another top priority, he said, is for the Legislature to pass an infrastructure package. Republicans have expressed opposition to the use of bonding, or borrowing, to pay for infrastructure, and complained that past packages did not address rural infrastructure.

“I included a $44 million grant program for Montana’s natural resource communities, largely, in Northern and Eastern Montana, that are impacted by fossil fuel development,” Bullock said.

Bullock is proposing paying for public works projects through a mix of cash and bonds.

The governor said he will also insist on no less than a $300 million “rainy day” fund included in the Legislature’s final budget. That would require more revenue, and that means tax increases, which Bullock has proposed to tack onto accommodations, rental cars, liquor, tobacco and licenses for investment advisors.

Republican Senate President Scott Sales from Bozeman gave a rebuttal to the State of the State address. He agreed that Montana’s economy is doing well, but says he is disturbed by the government’s growth.

Sales said the state has a high reliance on a federal government that is trillions of dollars in debt.

“Unfortunately, we’re passing on a debt to future generations, our kids and our grandkids, a debt that they can never repay,” Sales said.

Sales says Montanans are fortunate to have an abundance of natural resources and that the state should be developing the timber, copper, hardrock mine and coal industries. He says the current administration has blocked development in these sectors.

As for state-subsidized healthcare, Sales said, “The best healthcare program that anybody can have is a good job so they can buy their own healthcare.”

Sales ended his speech by saying Republicans are committed to passing a budget within the state’s means, and one that is free from the governor’s’ proposed tax increases.

Bill would expand Teacher Retention Program

A bill introduced in a legislative committee Monday would build on a state program aimed at recruiting and retaining quality educators in rural Montana through student loan assistance and other incentives.

Rep. Llew Jones, a Republican from Conrad, is carrying House Bill 211, which would make loan assistance payments to teachers tax exempt. It would also allocate $400,000 for school districts with teachers who qualify for loan assistance to help incentivize those teachers to stay.

Executive Director of the Montana School Boards Association, Lance Melton, spoke in support of the bill.

“The smaller and more rural you get, the more critical your circumstances generally are,” Melton said.

The existing, but unfunded, Quality Educator Loan Assistance Program allows an educator at a school with a critical shortage of teachers to get loan assistance from the state for up to three years. A school district is defined as critically needy if it struggles to fill open positions.

The level of assistance increases each year, so an eligible teacher would receive $3,000 the first year and $5,000 the third year.

Two people representing eastern Montana schools spoke in “slight” opposition of the bill, saying its language would deny the benefits to some needy schools. Jones said he would consider amending that language.

Another bill will deal with allocating funds to the loan assistance program.

Bill would criminalize doctor-assisted death

Montana lawmakers are considering a bill that would invalidate consent as a legal defense for doctor-assisted deaths, meaning doctors could be charged with homicide if they help a terminally-ill person die.

Under current law, patient “consent” in these cases is invalid if a person is legally incompetent, coerced, cannot make reasonable judgement, or if the action taken is against public policy. House Bill 284, sponsored by Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, would make doctorassisted death against public policy.

“This bill is an opportunity to send a consistent message about suicide from young to old, from healthy to sick -- that it’s not a good option,” Glimm said during the bill’s initial hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, sponsored a similar bill in 2017 but it failed to pass through the House on a 50-50 vote.

A 2009 ruling from the Montana Supreme Court, Baxter v. Montana, made doctor-assisted death a legal option in the state. Essentially, the ruling found that nothing in state law prohibited a doctor from prescribing medication to hasten a patient’s death. The case was brought by an ex-Marine and retired truck driver, Robert Baxter, who was suffering from leukemia and wanted the right to an assisted death.

Justice John Warner, appointed by former Republican Gov. Judy Martz to the Montana Supreme Court, wrote a concurring opinion in which he said “suicide” is a pejorative term and that it should not be used to describe doctor-assisted death.

But, like Glimm, supporters of the bill say allowing doctorassisted death still sends the wrong message about suicide. Executive Director of the Montana Catholic Conference Matt Brower was one of the bill’s supporters Tuesday, saying doctor-assisted death could also harm patients’ trust for doctors.

“Legalized assisted suicide represents misguided public policy and would have harmful implications for all of society,” Brower said.

Six other people spoke in support of the bill, including representatives from Montanans Against Assisted Suicide, the Montana Family Foundation and the Montana Right to Life.

Baxter’s daughter testified in opposition of the bill. Roberta King, from Missoula, says her dad told her many times he wanted aid in dying, but it wasn’t legal yet.

“This made his suffering and death much more painful and difficult than they otherwise could have been and deprived him the right for himself to decide how much suffering he would endure before he died,” King said.

King said two years ago, her 36-year-old nephew also died with a doctor’s help while suffering from pancreatic cancer. King said she and her sister drove to Helena to testify against the 2017 version of this bill two days after his death.

Nine others testified in opposition to HB 284, including two registered nurses and a doctor. Many said doctor-assisted death should be a matter of privacy and personal choice, not a decision made by the government.

The committee will now decide whether to move it to the House Floor for debate, or to table it.

Firefighter Protection Act would offer Workers’ Comp coverage for cancer, PTSD

Firefighters with conditions like cancer, heart disease and post-traumatic stress disorder could have their treatment covered by worker’s compensation insurance under a new bill in the Montana Legislature.

President of the Montana Fire Chiefs’ Association Rich Cowger said during a public hearing on the bill Tuesday that firefighters face many hazards and should be covered for illnesses that might come with the job.

“‘Workers’ comp’ is designed to fight against catastrophic injuries,” Cowger said. “A heart attack is a catastrophic injury. A diagnosis of cancer is a catastrophic injury.”

Sen. Nate McConnell, DMissoula, is sponsoring Senate Bill 160, referred to as the Firefighter Protection Act, which would also require firefighters to take a physical at least once every two years.

“The physicals are one of the linchpins of the Firefighter Protection Act,” McConnell said. “Catch it early. It’s easier to treat and the firefighter can recover.”

Opponents of SB 160 say new claims would cause insurance rates to rise. Larry Jones with the Montana Self Insurers’ Association said it would be difficult for insurers to refute claims.

“How does an insurance company disprove a presumptive illness claim? All the evidence has been destroyed,” Jones said.

The Firefighters Protection Act has time limits on coverage depending on the disease, extends 10 years after a firefighter retires, and covers 13 different occupational illnesses.

The bill is accompanied by Senate Bill 171, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, which would require firefighters hired after Jan. 1, 2020 to be tobacco-free, and current firefighters who use tobacco to go to treatments to help them quit.

“If we’re going to assume that all cancer is caused by a presumptive disease, we can’t have guys using tobacco,” Fitzpatrick said.

The Senate Business, Labor and Economics Committee did not immediately take a vote on the bill Tuesday.

Supporters of ‘Hanna’s Act’ fill Montana’s Capitol

Supporters of legislation drafted to address the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women filled the Montana Capitol Wednesday and 27 people lined up to support one bill, named after Hanna Harris, who was found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in 2013.

Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, is sponsoring House Bill 21, referred to as “Hanna’s Act,” which would give the Montana Department of Justice $100,000 of state money every year to hire a missing persons specialist. The specialist would also train law enforcement agencies across the state on best practices for missing persons cases.

Peppers says the failure to find missing people is a statewide issue.

“It break my hearts that these things happen in Indian country. They also happen to Montana people,” Peppers said during the bill’s first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. “To know that these people will never be seen again is hard.”

Jackie Jones with the Montana County Attorneys Association says predators choose victims they think won’t be looked for, but “Hanna’s Act” would close that gap and make sure no community is vulnerable.

“No matter who the child or who the person is, we are going to search with the same intensity, no matter what,” Jones said. “And that’s a message to perpetrators: that we’re watching.”

House Bill 54, which is also sponsored by Peppers, is another piece of legislation introduced Wednesday addressing the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. The bill would force law enforcement agencies to file a missing persons report two hours after receiving notice of a missing minor, or eight hours if the missing person is an adult.

Malinda Harris Limberhand, mother of the Hanna Harris, said the police didn’t file a missing persons report after she told them her daughter was missing. She said she made her own search party with neighbors and friends.

“My community was there for me,” she said. “We did it without the help of police at all.”

There were no opponents to either bills and the committee didn’t immediately vote on the measures.

Shaylee Ragar and Tim Pierce are reporters with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at shaylee.ragar@umontana.edu . Tim can be reached at tim.pierce@umontana.edu .