- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A House committee tried to kill the last-standing Medicaid expansion bill Tuesday by heavily amending it and giving it an unfavorable report. Those moves led to the start of a procedural rules battle between Democrats and conservative Republicans that likely will take at least the rest of the week to resolve.

The House Human Services Committee led by conservative Republicans voted 10-7 along party lines to move Senate Bill 405 to the House floor with the adverse report after a 4½-hour hearing. That move means 60 representatives would have to vote to reject the recommendation in order for the bill to be debated and put to a vote.

In March, the same committee defeated the governor’s Medicaid expansion bill by giving it an unfavorable report.

Unlike the governor’s bill, which was carried by a Democrat, Senate Bill 405 was brought by Republican Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls and had been touted as a compromise with Buttrey calling it the most conservative plan in the U.S.

The Montana Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership (HELP) Act would accept federal funds to expand Medicaid eligibility to low-income people but would require them to pay premiums and co-payments. Enrollees would also be asked to participate in a workplace assessment survey designed to help people obtain better-paying jobs.

Mostly due to the co-payments and premiums, officials are estimating about 45,000 Montanans of about 70,000 who would become eligible would enroll in Medicaid.

Committee Chairman Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman said even with those parameters, the bill doesn’t represent a true compromise.

“The reality is that 85 percent of the Republican caucus did not support Senate Bill 405,” he said. “They were never consulted, never negotiated with.”

After nearly three hours of testimony in which nearly 70 supporters and about 30 opponents testified, Republican committee members began adding amendments to the bill.

Among them was one pushed by Rep. Stephanie Hess of Havre that would essentially strike the bill as written and insert the governor’s bill, which she and others voted to kill in March.

“If it’s going to be the will of this Legislature to pass Medicaid expansion I prefer it be straight Medicaid expansion,” Hess said. “This (Senate Bill 405) costs more money and adds a layer of bureaucracy.”

Republicans then changed it so the measure would be sent to the voters to decide in the 2016 election. Both amendments passed along party lines while Democrats cried foul.

“This is embarrassing,” Rep. Ellie Hill of Missoula told lawmakers. “If you came here today and you listened to 4½ hours of testimony from people all over the state on a bill they believed they were testifying on in good faith, and then the whole time you had a substitute bill basically. I don’t know how you can look these people in the face.”

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter of Helena objected later in the day to the House accepting the adverse committee report, saying it violates a prior agreement involving “silver bullets,” or motions to allow bills to come to the floor with only a simple majority vote. He questioned whether silver bullets trump an adverse committee report.

The Rules Committee will decide Wednesday whether it was OK for Hunter to object, and that report will go back to the full House for a vote. Hunter said he expects the procedural moves could continue for days, which means the bill remains alive, for now.

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