The 66th Montana Legislative Session began Jan. 7 and based on the 3,101 bills that have been submitted so far, lawmakers will be working in overdrive. For Democrats, top priorities include keeping health care accessible for all Montanans, promoting good-paying jobs by investing in sustainable infrastructure, and passing a viable budget that allows for an adequate rainy-day fund.
Democratic leaders urge members of both parties to roll up our sleeves and work across the aisle to solve problems. We will put a premium on bipartisanship and civility this session ó itís what our citizens expect and deserve. That starts with understanding that campaign season is over. Campaigns are for making promises; the legislative session is for fulfilling them. While some may feel the urge to look toward 2020 and the next election, our focus for the next ninety days must be here in the state capitol, getting the peopleís work done.
For Democrats, the first priority is renewing Medicaid expansion for nearly 100,000 Montanans. We strongly support the Keep Montana Healthy Act, which makes sure these folks ó 1 in 10 of our neighbors across the state ó donít lose their health-care coverage. Since its enactment in 2015, the HELP Act has been hugely successful, creating thousands of jobs across Montana and ensuring rural hospitals have not been forced to shutter their doors. In addition to providing a lifeline for Montanaís most vulnerable communities, the program has substantially helped small businesses: fifty-seven percent of Montana businesses have at least one employee enrolled in Medicaid.
Some legislators have argued that work requirements should be implemented as part of the programís renewal. But work requirements can be counter-productive, forcing the state to implement a costly surveillance program. Furthermore, work requirements are unnecessary: most Montanans on Medicaid are employed, and those who are not have hardships that keep them at home. For Medicaid participants who may be looking for work, the HELP Link program has assisted with the transition into the workforce at a greater rate than any other state.
Another issue Democrats will fight for is fixing our stateís crumbling infrastructure. In 2018, Montana received a ďCĒ grade on its infrastructure report card from the Montana Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. To many Montanans, this grade is no surprise. Every day, residents are confronted with aging infrastructure in their communities. Not only does investing in our building, roads, and other infrastructure create jobs, it also provides training for workers to help them adapt to changing opportunities in the stateís 21st century economy.
Lastly, it is our duty to pass a budget that is both fiscally responsible and addresses our stateís most pressing needs. The stateís budget demonstrates what we as Montanans value. We value quality education. We value mental health services. We value a vibrant business climate, public lands, good jobs, and opportunities for all our citizens. These priorities must direct our work on preparing the final budget bill.
As is the nature of a legislative session, there will no doubt be disagreements about how to accomplish these goals, and spirited debate will always be the hallmark of the democratic process. But we must be committed to disagree with civility. All legislators, on both sides of the aisle, must work together to solve Montanaís problems and to move our state forward. Letís get after it.
Montana Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jon Sesso (Butte) and Democratic Minority Whips JP Pomnichowski (Bozeman) and Margie MacDonald (Billings)