HELENA — After a lengthy debate, the bill to continue Medicaid expansion in Montana failed to pass the Senate on a 25-25 vote last week and several attempts to revive it Friday and Saturday also failed, leaving it stalled.
House Bill 658, would have continued the program passed in 2015 that provides healthcare coverage to about 96,000 Montanans. The new bill, which would add work requirements, forcing eligible enrollees to record 80 hours per month, is carried in the Senate by Republican Sen. Jason Small from Busby.
“There’s never a one-size-fits-all-solution to any problem, but this is a good start,” Small said. “It’s going to help people go back to work. It’s going to make people healthy again. It’s going to get them off their addictions and able to once again function in society and they can become members of a healthy and productive workforce. ”
Some opponents of the bill, like Republican Senate President Scott Sales, say the program spends too much federal money, using about $700 million in federal funding every year.
“This isn’t a Republican problem, it’s not a Democrat problem, it’s our problem. We have got to get back to the point where we live within our means to some degree,” Sales said. “Just because the federal government is going to give us a bunch of quote-unquote free money that they’ve created out of thin air doesn’t mean in the long run, this is going to be a good deal for anybody.”
Lawmakers did pass several amendments to the bill Thursday, including one that added a 2025 expiration date to the program. Since the bill failed its initial vote, all amendments added during the debate also died.
Last month, the House passed the bill 61-37.
Sexual Assault Bills Pass
Two bills aimed at cracking down on sexual assault in Montana have full clearance from the Legislature and have reached the governor’s desk.
Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula and Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, teamed up to draft the proposals. Sands founded the first rape crisis center and the Women’s Resource Center on the University of Montana campus in the 1960s. Dudik has worked as a prosecutor of sexual abuse cases.
Senate Bill 52 aims to streamline the testing of sexual assault kits and Senate Bill 261 revises consent laws to protect against abuses of power. Both are carried by Sands and passed both chambers by wide margins.
This legislation builds off policies passed in the 2017 legislative session, like Senate Bill 29, which removed the word “force” from rape laws and increased penalties for aggravated sexual assault.
According to an annual report from Montana’s Department of Justice, the forensic lab that tests sexual assault kits in the state, saw an 86 percent increase in sexual assault cases between 2013 and 2017. SB 52 requires the department to track the kits throughout the testing process and also puts a timeline in place for kits to be given to law enforcement.
“(A sexual assault kit) is one of the key infrastructure pieces in prosecuting sexual assault,” Sands said.
The other bill, SB 261, which has now been signed into law, negates the defense of consent if there is a clear imbalance of power between two people who engage in sexual activity. The bill uses the example of a witness of a crime and an investigating officer as a case in which consent could not be used as a viable defense. Another example included is a parent and an employee of the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The law aims to prevent a person from abusing his or her power to coerce another person to consent to sex. Sands said the bill closes a loophole, and is similar to prohibiting the defense of consent when an adult has sex with a minor.
Both bills earned bipartisan support. SB 52 passed 98-0 and SB 261 passed 96-2 out of the House.
Montana Lawmakers Debate The Future Of Montana Wolves
The future of the gray wolf in Montana has led to a tug-of-war between conservationists and ranchers over policy proposals in the Legislature, and both sides have claimed victories.
On Thursday, a Senate committee advanced two house bills that would make wolf hunting licenses cheaper. Rep. Bob Brown, a Republican from Thompson Falls, is carrying House Bill 407 and House Bill 280, which would reduce the licence fee from $19 to $12 and add more of a discount for class AAA combination sports licenses.
“This is an attempt to make your hunting experience a little more affordable and to put more legal wolf hunters out on the range,” Brown said.
A wide variety of proponents were able to agree on these particular bills, including the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.
However, Brown has two other wolf-related bills that have been stalled or killed in committee. House Bill 551 would have allowed for wolf hunting at night, and failed to pass the House 44-56. House Bill 279 would have given reimbursements to trappers for fees incurred while trapping wolves, but failed the Senate 23-27, and then was postponed indefinitely.
Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, said during debate on the bill that it would not do anything to help mitigate wolf populations, but makes trapping a contest.
“It has always been unlawful to essentially have a prize for killing animals in the state of Montana, and this would be an exception to this,” Cohenour said.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, wolves were eradicated in Montana by 1930. However, populations have steadily revived over the years due to conservation efforts. Debates have been flaring over how to manage those populations.
Another bill moving through the Legislature would have an interim committee study the cost and value of grizzly bears and wolves in the state. Senate Joint Resolution 7 asks for a committee to weigh the economic benefits of the animals against the threats to agriculture.