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Montana Senate Passes State Budget Bill, Rejects Attempt to End Medicaid Expansion

By 
Austin Amestoy
Thursday, April 15, 2021

The state budget is on the move again in the Montana Legislature after the Senate passed in on a 33-17 vote Thursday, making few changes and defeat-ing an attempt to end Medicaid expansion in the process.

House Bill 2 is the only bill the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass, as it determines how much money state agencies and programs will receive for the next two years. This session, the budget is about $12.6 billion, with funds going to five main categories: government operations, health and human services, natural resources and transportation, the judicial branch and law enforcement, and public education.

The bill came before the full Senate after passing out of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee on a bipartisan, 13-6 vote. On the floor, lawmakers didn’t make many changes, though several attempts by Democrats to add back programs cut by Republicans in the House failed to gain traction.

Lawmakers proposed the most amendments to the section of the bill that sets the budget for the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which accounts for nearly 50% of all state spending at $6 billion per year. One amendment sponsored by

Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, sought to add $1 million in funding for suicide prevention programs within the Addictive and Mental Disorders Division. Morigeau also sponsored the amendment in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, where it was also defeated.

“We’re all impacted by suicide in Montana because it’s an epidemic,” Morigeau, who lost his sister to suicide, told Senators. “Knowing that means that we have to do better.”

But Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, who serves as a member of the committee that worked on the health budget, urged lawmakers to vote against the amendment. Keenan said he agreed that Montana is experiencing a suicide crisis, but said he couldn’t support appropriating $1 million with “no goals and no program,” with no indication of where the money will go.

“We need to quantify the effectiveness of this,” Keenan said. The amendment died on a 22-28 vote.

Democrats in the Senate also made another attempt at restoring continuous eligibility for Medicaid expansion, a system that allows people who are approved for Medicaid to stay on for 12 months before needing to re-apply. Lawmakers in the House removed continuous eligibility earlier in the session. The attempt to restore the program in the Senate failed 19-31.

Democrats also attempted to restore other budget programs like the “STARS to Quality” program in the Office of Public Instruction, which offers optional program effectiveness assessments and advice to preschool programs. Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, also tried again to add $600,000 per year in funding to eliminate copays for parents of public school students who qualify for reduced school lunch. Both amendments failed.

One notable amendment proposed during the discussion came from Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, who suggested removing all state funding for Medicaid expansion, which would effectively kill the program. First passed in 2015 and extended by the Legislature in 2019, Medicaid expansion offers health insurance to more than 90,000 low-income Montanans. Molnar argued many people on Medicaid expansion are not working, and that taxpaying Montanans shouldn’t be paying to cover their insurance. However, a 2020 report from several state agencies indicated that seven out of ten Montanans eligible for Medicaid expansion are currently employed. Molnar said cutting Medicaid expansion would encourage people to get a job.

“To some, that may seem a bit heartless -- to me, it’s helping the working poor of Montana,” Molnar said.

Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, urged his fellow Senators to vote against the amendment, though he added that he “could certainly appreciate a good bill hijacking” to laughter from Molnar.

“Now is not a good time for people to be losing healthcare,” Small said.

The amendment failed 20-30.

Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, chairs the Senate Finance and Claims Committee and serves as the point-person for the budget in the Senate. He commended lawmakers in both parties for doing a “fabulous” job on the budget, which is 3.6% larger than the previous state budget -- notably lower than the 4% rate of inflation.

“This is a good budget. It represents a budget that did ‘hold the line’ [on state spending],” Osmundson said. “As a whole, Montanans are extremely resilient, and this budget funds the services they expect and the services they want.”

The budget will now head back to the House for consideration of the changes made in the Senate.

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