Rob Natelson: Three Cheers for Speaker Blasdell and the State House!!! (to which is appended a heads-up from past experience)

Carl Graham and I were in the legislative galleries in Helena last Friday, when the state stepped back from the brink.

Democrats and some Republicans were pushing for the state to yoke itself to the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, enticed by “free federal money.” So they amended a bill designed to keep the state free from the expansion to one chaining the state to the expansion.

The rules of the state House of Representatives generally provide that when the purpose of a bill is changed, it should go back to committee for review. So in a courageous move guaranteed to irritate the state’s “opinion leaders,” Speaker of the House Mark Blasdel decided to just that.

Advocates of the expansion immediately moved to appeal the Speaker’s ruling. All of us in the House chamber held our breaths to see what the roll call vote would be. At the end, the motion to overrule lost—but by the closest margin possible: 50 for, 50 against. Then the bill was physically transmitted to the committee.

At least one, and possibly two, Democrats claimed to have pushed the wrong button while voting, but some Republicans may have made off-setting errors. Anyway, advocates of the extension pushed for a second vote, while hospital lobbyists—eager to pad their employers’ pockets by throwing more people into government dependency—vigorously worked on lawmakers, trying to flip some to their cause. They actually wound up losing people: The second vote to reverse Speaker Blasdell lost 48-52.

Some in the Montana political establishment can be ruthless in finding ways to overrule the state legislature when it makes a fiscally conservative decision. Montana lawmakers have to be careful they are not overruled this time.

For example, in the 1990s, the state House rejected federal funding for a controversial education program. Instead of respecting the legislative will, the governor and superintendent of public instruction decided to thwart it. They arranged for the money to bypass state government and go directly from the feds to local school bureaucrats.

A little later in the decade, Montana lawmakers rejected CHIP, one of those federal health care programs that are (1) promoted as improving access to care but instead (2) always make care more expensive and less accessible. So the Montana state auditor (insurance commissioner) decided to violate a central canon of our constitutional government: He decided, as an executive branch officer, to invade the sole right of the legislature to appropriate money.

First, he threatened insurance companies with prosecution for allegedly breaking regulations. Next, he dropped the cases when the insurance companies handed over large cash payments. Finally, he used the extorted funds to erect the CHIP program himself.

Voila! more dependency, less affordable care, and a new spending constituency.

Montana lawmakers must ensure they are not overridden this time. But if their decision holds, they will have made an important step toward more fiscal sanity and physical health.

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