Legislative Roundup – Week 14

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, (left) discusses with House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, in the House lobby April 7.

April 11, 2015

By Michael Wright

Community News Service

UM School of Journalism


Medicaid expansion clears House

After wrangling over rules, the last remaining bill to expand Medicaid at the 64th Montana Legislature appears to be headed to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 405, sponsored by Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, expands Medicaid to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. It accepts federal money available under the Affordable Care Act, asks some on Medicaid to pay premiums for their coverage and creates job training programs for recipients through the Department of Labor.

A House committee heard the bill early in the week and gave it a “do not pass” recommendation, meaning it couldn’t be debated on the floor unless 60 representatives voted to do so. House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, objected to that on the House floor, saying the bill was one of their “silver bullets,” referring to a deal cut at the beginning of the session that gave Democrats six chances to bring bills to the House floor with 51 votes.

Hunter sent a letter to House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, before the bill’s hearing that designated it as one of their “silver bullets,” and Hunter argued that because of the letter, the “do not pass” report was improper.

That led to a two-day rules fight that ended up going Hunter’s way. A simple majority vote blasted the bill to the House Floor with support from Democrats and moderate Republicans.

A long debate similar to the one seen at every stage of the battle ensued.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion said the bill would provide much needed coverage, offer the poorest Montanans help in getting out of poverty and keep rural hospitals open by reducing uncompensated care costs.

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, said he supports the bill because it can help people get out of poverty, and incentivizes people to work harder. He added that the bill covers important groups of people, including veterans.

I think this is the one chance we have to try to help them,” Garner said.

Opponents argued it will cover “able-bodied childless adults” and gives them access to care over those who are supposed to be on Medicaid, the poorest of the poor.

This is a tragedy especially for the disabled poor,” Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton said. “But also for the working poor. This bill is facilitating their dependence on government.”

The bill passed 54-42. It will now head to the governor’s desk.

Bullock vetoes another tax cut

Gov. Bullock handed down another veto on a tax cut bill last week.

Last Thursday, shortly after the full House endorsed Medicaid expansion, Bullock’s office announced his veto of Senate Bill 200, which would have cut taxes by almost $80 million over the next two years.

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, issued a statement after the veto announcement, calling the governor “disingenuous” for not signing the bill, which Knudsen said gave significant tax relief to the middle class.

In the statement, Knudsen added that the governor has shown he “does not want to provide any relief to the hardworking men and women across this state” and only wants to “grow government and increase spending.”

Bullock said the bill didn’t provide relief proportionally to taxpayers.

The majority of it would have gone to the largest wage earners in the state,” Bullock said.

Bullock also said that after the 2013 session, he had to veto $150 million of spending to make sure the budget was structurally balanced, and that he didn’t want to do that again. The money for a tax cut would come out of the general fund revenue.

The bill, carried by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, cleared both Houses in March on largely party line votes.

Senate passes increased budget

After adding more than $20 million in spending, the Senate passed House Bill 2, the state budget.

The bill lines out about $4 billion in general fund spending over the next two years. With the Senate amendments, it spends about $23 million more than the version passed by the House last month.

Both senators and the governor said the budget had been much improved by the Senate.

The bill has moved itself toward a better condition at every stage of the journey,” said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the chair of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee that added most of the spending increases.

Improvements were certainly made on the Senate side,” Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said. But, he added there were still more things he’d like to see added to the bill.

One of the parts of his budget proposal that hasn’t been funded is the $37 million for "Early Edge," the plan to expand preschool. The program would be voluntary for both schools and students.

Sen. Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade, tried one amendment to fully fund the program, saying full discussion on the program hadn’t happened yet.

This is a priority with the administration,” Hamlett said. “And we need to have the discussion.”

Jones, who led the subcommittee that handled the education portion of the budget, opposed the amendment, saying it wasn’t proven to be completely effective and mostly helps “at-risk” students and larger school districts.

He said it would be hard for rural school districts to hire accredited preschool teachers.

I am not a supporter of this version of Early Edge,” Jones said.

The amendment failed along party lines 29-21. Hamlett brought a second amendment that would have partially funded the program, which also failed along party lines.

In addition to the $23 million added to the 2016-2017 budget, a Senate committee also added about $24 million to cover deficits in the 2014-2015 budget, usually included in a different bill that was killed by the House last month. That money will prevent furloughs in some state offices and budget shortfalls for schools.  

The bill will now go to a House and Senate conference committee to hammer out final details before it’s sent to the governor.

Bill to increase public access gets easy hearing in the House

A bill expanding a program to pay landowners for allowing recreational access to state lands blocked by their private land got an easy hearing in the House last week, with no opposition.

Senate Bill 309, carried by Sen. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Bozeman, expands a program that gave landowners a $500 tax credit for providing access to state lands. Only two people signed up for the credit. Hinkle’s bill would include federal lands and bumps the credit to $750.

Hinkle said that although several landowners already provide access, this would incentivize more of them to do so.

Wildlife and agriculture groups supported the bill, as did Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. No one opposed the bill at the hearing.

Last month it sailed through the Senate with a 44-6 vote.

- Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.


April 11, 2015

By Michael Wright

Community News Service

UM School of Journalism

Tech-savvy Montana political nerds know the secret: connect to the internet (be it cell phone, iPad or laptop), log on to Twitter, search #mtleg, and watch the constant stream. Tweet after tweet rolls in on bills, debates, who’s great, who’s terrible, a near-constant commentary on the happenings within the building at the top of the hill in Helena.

Social media has drastically changed the landscape for political engagement, with people able to find out what’s happening through Facebook and Twitter almost instantaneously. A 2014 Pew study found that 66 percent of social media users had engaged in political activities through the sites, and 20 percent actually followed lawmakers or candidates for office.

Lawmakers across the country -- about 35 percent, increasing every election cycle, according to a 2014 Reuters report -- use social media to connect with constituents and push their big issues, and people following the process are noticing and taking advantage.

Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, one of the most active Twitter users in the Legislature, recently sat at the front of the House of Representatives, also known as the People’s House, and talked about why she thinks Twitter’s growth in popularity at the legislature is great.

Twitter makes it the People’s House in real time,” she said.

Hill said when she began in the House, she was one of only a handful of legislators using Twitter regularly. That has changed.

Of the 150 lawmakers, 76 at least have Twitter accounts registered in their name. About half of the members of each party have an account, 31 Democrats and 45 Republicans.

There have even been pushes within the parties to increase Twitter activity. At a Republican convention a few years ago, Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville, was asked to teach a class about the social network, and even sign some people up.

He said there were about 80 people in his class. He explained how it works and gave out a sheet that showed several accounts for people to follow, including other legislators and journalists who cover the Capitol.

By Michael Wright

Community News Service

UM School of Journalism

When it comes to water at the 64th Montana Legislature, there tends to be one bill on everybody’s mind – the Flathead Water Compact – but that’s not the only water issue that people are fighting over at the Capitol.

More than 40 water bills were introduced at the Montana Legislature this session, including bills aimed at mining operations, revising public notice requirements and exempt wells.

Some have moved through the process easily, like Libby Republican Sen. Chas Vincent’s Senate Bill 97, which aims to make it easier for the Department of Environmental Quality to reclassify waterways that may have been misclassified before.

The classification is based on what the stream’s most beneficial uses are – such as agriculture or recreation. For towns across Montana, the classification affects how much they dump into a stream from their own wastewater treatment plants.

Vincent said some stream classifications are more than a half-century old and may be wrong, but it was incredibly expensive for the department to revisit those under the old law. To reclassify a stream, they had to use expensive modeling systems to compare the current water quality to what it might have been when it was classified – possibly going as far back as the 1950s.

We’re getting to the point where to move the dial even a little bit it costs tens of millions of dollars,” Vincent said.

The department, along with mining organizations and the Montana League of Cities and Towns supported the bill. The Montana Environmental Information Center opposed the bill, asking for a clearer definition of “most beneficial use” to ensure existing uses aren’t harmed in the process.

It passed both Houses handily, and the governor signed it last month.

Vincent also has Senate Bill 57, which funds the water right adjudication process to verify existing water rights.

The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has examined thousands of water claims in the state to ensure their validity, and this bill funds the re-examination of 90,000 water claims by 2023 and the finalization of a decree by 2028.

These claims are all from before 1973, and are spread across the state. The final decree will line out what water rights are valid.

Tim Davis, DNRC’s water resources administrator, said the department needed to verify water rights that existed before the current state constitution, and that this process is key to that.

The bill had no opposition, and sits waiting in the House Appropriations committee.

Those bills don’t rile people up the way other water issues do – like exempt wells, for example.

An exempt well is a water well that doesn’t need a permit. It can only produce 35 gallons of water a minute and 10 acre feet of water a year. There are more than 100,000 exempt wells in Montana.

The conflict comes when one water user has multiple exempt wells drawing from the same aquifer in a small area, like when a subdivision is built and a number of wells are drilled to supply all of the houses.

Mark Aagenes, of Trout Unlimited, said the proliferation of subdivisions in some popular valleys -- like the Bitterroot, Gallatin and Helena valleys --  has had an effect on the water available for fish populations, especially in key tributaries for spawning.

We’re seeing higher temperatures on our rivers, we’re seeing lower flows on our rivers,” Aagenes said.   

While conservationists worry the subdivisions will drain tributaries crucial for fish populations, water right holders worry they won’t be able to protect their water rights if the subdivision drains the aquifer.

Jay Bodner, of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said his group is made up of people who have senior water rights, meaning they must get all of the water they need before the next right holder gets theirs. Water rights give someone ownership over a certain amount of water, and the older rights have priority over younger ones.

While that rule applies, DNRC said it’s nearly impossible to call exempt wells -- so if a senior right holder needs more water to satisfy their claim, it likely won’t come from the subdivision next door, no matter who came first.

DNRC rules require permits for a “combined appropriation,” which DNRC defined in 1993 as two exempt wells physically connected, like with a piping system. So, in a subdivision, each house could have its own exempt well -- no matter how small the parcel -- as long as none of them were connected.

Before 1993, that wasn’t the case. Without a permit, there couldn’t be multiple exempt wells drawing water from the same aquifer in a development.

In October 2014, a district judge in Lewis and Clark County struck down the 1993 rule, reverting back to a 1987 rule requiring permits for more than one well in the same development.

Rep. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, a builder, said the ruling “very significantly reduced what we can do as far as development.” He added that exempt wells are crucial for developers, since water rights are scarce in Montana.

To go through and get a normal water right permit is nearly impossible,” Glimm said.

He brought House Bill 519, which would limit the number of exempt wells in a certain area. His bill would allow one 7.5 acre foot well per 20 acres of land, and would increase the allowable well size slightly for every acre over that.

Houses only need about .21 acre feet of water per year, so a 7.5 acre foot exempt well could support a number of homes without requiring a permit.

Glimm said the bill would allow subdivisions to be smaller and more dense and prevent urban sprawl.

He said he’d brought all sides to the table and thought they’d found a good compromise, but that wasn’t quite the case. The bill cleared the House, and went to the Senate Natural Resources committee – chaired by Sen. Chas Vincent – last week.

By the time it landed in my committee it was not a consensus bill,” Vincent said.

Homebuilders and real estate agents supported the bill, saying it was a good compromise and that it helps them maintain profitability.

But, conservationists and ag groups remained unsatisfied, and said the bill wasn’t a compromise.

It was their attempt, but it still gave them everything they wanted,” Aagenes said.

Aagenes wanted to see even more space between exempt wells, and added that bill made household water uses a higher priority than other water uses, disrupting the idea of giving older rights higher priority.

Bodner said it didn’t do enough to protect the water rights of ranchers, and didn’t scale down for smaller lots. If someone had a 10 acre piece of land, for example, they can drill the same size exempt well that they could if they had 20 acres.

The bill will likely need more amendments to get out of the committee. But, the deadline for bills to be amended and returned to their original house is April 11, so the turnaround would have to be quick.

Vincent said the bill is likely to die in committee. That will leave the 1987 rule in place, which requires permits for multiple exempt wells in the same development.

- Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.