The Montana Legislature passed the bill to continue Medicaid expansion, which provides healthcare to about 69,000 low-income Montanans. 

House Bill 658 continues the program that originally passed in 2015, but it also adds work requirements that force eligible enrollees to record 80 hours of work per month. The Senate amended the bill, including adding a six-year expiration date, and then passed it 28-22 on Tuesday. The House adopted the Senate amendments Thursday 61-35.

House Minority Leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, said House Bill 658 was a compromise. He said most Democrats only wanted to remove the expiration of the program, but Republican lawmakers wanted to add elements like work requirements. 

“It’s not the product that I would’ve loved to see today. It’s the product that we have and the best version of it that does the least amount of harm to people in the state of Montana that we could get accomplished,” he said. “Neither side is probably super happy with that bill as it stands, but it’s what’s best for the people of Montana given that we couldn’t just take the sunset off.”

Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville was one of the 22 Republican Senators who voted against the bill, which carries a price tag of about $800 million of mostly federal money.

Thomas said the requirements as written are “pathetic,” and that he’d like to see stricter mandates. He also said during the debate that state money used in the expansion could fund other bills that invest in the state’s economy. 

“Many, many Montanans want this legislation to pass. But with it, you can’t turn the lights on. You can’t pay your mortgage. You can’t buy a newer car. You’ve got to have the rest of the picture to do this,” he said. 

Sen. Daniel Salomon, R-Ronan, said he recognizes complaints from other members of his party, like the use of about $700 million in federal funding, but, he said: “We accept federal money for highways. We accept federal money for education. You name it we do it. Why draw the line and say, ‘we are not going to have Medicaid, it’s too expensive. Here’s the line we’re going to make?’” 

Rep. Denise Hayman, D-Bozeman, says the bill is a product of hard work, and she’s glad to see it moved forward. 

“I think folks in Montana will be delighted to see that bill signed by the governor,” she said. 

Multiple news outlets reported that lawmakers had made a deal to trade votes on Medicaid expansion for the so-called “Save Colstrip” bill, which was drafted to incentivize Northwestern Energy to buy more shares of Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant. Senate Bill 331 ended up dying 37-60 in the House last week. It had been amended several times, including when a House committee restored oversight from the Public Service Commission in the deal. The House also removed language that would have allowed Northwestern to pass $75 million worth of decommissioning and remediation costs onto ratepayers. 

It had passed second reading Monday 62-38 before failing a final vote on Tuesday. But, Hayman says there is talk of amending another energy bill to tack on ideas from SB 331. One possible bill is House Bill 597, which would reform how utilities are regulated and aims to increase competition in the energy market. It passed the Senate 39-11. 

Republican Rep. Daniel Zolnikov of Billings is carrying that bill, and says he’s been working on it for years. 

“I’m trying to fix a lot of the volatility in the energy world,” he said.

Zolnikov says he’d like the policy to stay in its current form, but that amendments are always possible. Last week, the House voted to send HB 597 to a conference committee, which is where amendments can be tacked on. 

Firefighter Protection Act Becomes Law

Gov. Steve Bullock has signed into law the Firefighter Protection Act, which requires workers’ compensation insurance to cover presumptive occupational diseases, like cancer, for the state’s firefighters. 

Senate Bill 160 was carried by Sen. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, who said 

at the bill signing that his brother is a firefighter, so the issue is personal. 

The bill has been a goal for the governor for several sessions. 

“Every firefighter should know Montana has their back. And it’s about damn time,” Bullock said at a bill signing ceremony Friday. 

The bill requires a certain number of years service to make a workers’ compensation claim. 

Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, said those in the profession get cancer at rates multiple times of the general population. 

“It is the job, it is the exposure, it is the toxic soup (firefighters) work in,” Schaitberger said.

The ceremony also honored Jason Baker, a firefighter who advocated for this legislation before he died of lung cancer Feb. 20, after 16 years of service as a firefighter in Great Falls, the Great Falls Tribune reported. His wife and two kids were in attendance at the bill signing. 

McConnell worked with a number of lawmakers across the aisle to pass the bill, including Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, and Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings. McConnell said it will help the next generation of Montana firefighters, and that he’s honored to help this cause.  

“There are rarely opportunities for somebody to carry a bill that means so much to our heroes,” McConnell said. 

Lawmakers Pass Legislation to Address Missing and Murdered Indigenous People

After a turbulent journey through the Montana Legislature, the bill named after Hanna Harris, who was found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2013, passed the Senate 37-13 last week. 

House Bill 21, also known as “Hanna’s Act,” would create a special position in the state Department of Justice that would investigate all missing persons cases in the state. The bill’s carrier, Sen Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said it’s key to addressing what she calls the “crisis” of missing Montanans to have a person at the department “who has those skills and relationships to be able to cut through all the bureaucratic red tape and make sure we do everything we can to find those people who are missing or murdered.” 

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee had recently re-added language that forces the DOJ to create the position and also brought back the $100,000-per-year funding. 

Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, voted against the changed bill. 

“This is a job description that we are putting into statute. That leaves no flexibility for the position to adapt and adjust,” Fielder said. “Unless, you come back next session and run another bill at the expense of the taxpayers.” 

The Senate Judiciary Committee also originally tabled the bill, but eventually passed it. 

However, while “Hanna’s Act” was in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, it was amended to be a companion to Senate Bill 312, which would create a unified network that collects data on missing indigenous people. With the new changes, if SB 312 died, so would “Hanna’s Act.” 

SB 312, which is sponsored by Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month. But, it was then revived and passed out with amendments that switched oversight from the Board of Crime Control to the DOJ. It passed its final vote in the House last week on a 92-5 vote. 

Shaylee Ragar and Tim Pierce are reporters with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at Tim can be reached at