HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Steve Bullock made sure Friday that it will be a little harder for Republicans to oppose votes expected next week on Medicaid expansion, pointing out that now even the conservative-leaning Montana Chamber of Commerce endorses the program.
Bullock has been sparring with Republican lawmakers over plans to accept federal money to expand Medicaid to those making up to 138 percent of the poverty level, or about or $15,000 for a single person.
"The Legislature still has the opportunity, and Montanans want to see it," Bullock told reporters on Friday. "Other than those few Republican legislators, you have to ask yourself: 'who is against this?'"
Supporters argue that the influx of federal money will reduce uncompensated care costs for hospitals and help expand the economy. But Republicans in the Legislature say the state could eventually be on the hook for the expansion if the federal money dries up.
"It can't just be expansion," Republican House Speaker Mark Blasdel said Thursday as lawmakers left for a four-day Easter break. "there has to be other ways of doing this without putting taxpayers at risk."
The issue is expected to hit the Montana Senate again next week. Thursday night, the Montana Chamber of Commerce board decided to endorse an expansion of the program that also includes reforms to the system, said chamber president Webb Brown.
The board decided that the expansion will reduce cost-shifting of treating uninsured patients to paying customers, that the new federal money in the state will be good for business and be good for taxpayers.
But the board said it wants to see privately managed health care for the Medicaid population. And it supports a select committee sought by Republicans to study the issue.
This past week, lawmakers approved the bulk of the money for the state employee pay raise sought by Bullock, and also backed his plans to fix the pension system. The lawmakers also advanced his request to build new educational and other buildings around the state in an attempt to spur job growth, although differences remain on how to pay for it, and stricter campaign finance rules.
The Senate starts working on a budget next week, even as disparate partisan priorities threaten to eat up all the state's surplus. Bullock expects the lawmakers to restore federal family planning money yanked by conservatives opposed to Planned Parenthood. The governor is also anticipating an increase in education funding to stick.
And, so far, Bullock has been opposed to the tax cut plans proposed by Republican leaders because he argues they send too much of the benefit to those who don't need it and offer chump change to average earners. Bullock wants a $400 per-homeowner rebate.
But Bullock maintained such a slate, if passed, would be fair for conservatives in the Legislature.
"I think they could walk out with a great victory saying that they were responsible with our budget and did great things for the state going forward," Bullock said.
Republican leaders expect more.
"Obviously, we have been open to a lot of his proposals," Blasdel said.
Blasdell said he "absolutely" believes that conservative priorities such as tax cuts should be part of the final mix.
"I believe there will be a balance struck," Blasdel said.
But Blasdel is not so certain he can hold off Medicaid expansion that he opposes, which he said "puts the state at risk long term."
So far, those proposals to expand Medicaid have been tabled in GOP-controlled committees. But other parliamentary moves remain to advance the bills, and advocates are hoping to get a Senate floor vote next week on the issue.
"Nothing is ever dead in this building," Blasdell lamented.
Bullock agreed with the House's top Republican on that point.
"It's all alive until the end," the governor said.