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Medicaid, Colstrip bills still unresolved in Legislature

Posted at 1:02 PM, Apr 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-13 15:02:32-04

HELENA – The state Senate deadlocked 25-to-25 Thursday on the bill to continue Medicaid expansion, which provides health coverage to 96,000 low-income adults in Montana.

On Friday, Democrats asked the Senate to take it up again, but leaders of the Republican majority argued against it.

Montana Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said, “I had a lot of people coming to me, with a lot of questions, that they’re delving into that legislation, and they want some more time.”

The Democrats’ request failed on a 24-26 vote.

It appears Republicans are waiting to see what will happen to a proposal meant to encourage NorthWestern Energy to buy a portion of the Colstrip 4 power plant and a related high-voltage transmission line.

GOP lawmakers say the purchase will help prolong the life of the power plant, save jobs, and help energy-generation in the state.

Late Friday, on a party-line vote, Republicans on a House committee approved a bill containing this proposal.

“No matter what, Montana is going to need more power,” said MT Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell. “If there’s an opportunity for us to pick it up right here, already in place, in Colstrip, burning coal that’s from Montana, I don’t see how this is a problem.”

The bill was amended to give the state Public Service Commission (PSC) more control over how NorthWestern customers would pay for the plant costs.

But Democrats say it’s still a bad idea.

“This committee and this Legislature is most obviously not a substitute for the PSC, nor is this committee and this Legislature the proper place to negotiate specific energy trades,” said MT Rep. Christopher Pope, D-Bozeman.

But it’s also not clear whether sponsors of the Colstrip bill like the amendments, either — or, what that means for action on the Medicaid bill.

Republican Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip told MTN News late Friday that the Colstrip proposal may end up in a joint House-Senate conference committee, which could insert the language that makes it work.

So, clear as mud? One thing we do know: The clock is ticking. Whichever bills solve the puzzle, must clear their respective House by Tuesday.

Related: Federal judge stalls developer’s effort to build West Coast port for Montana coal

-Reported by Mike Dennison/MTN News