HELENA — Montana Free Press launched its first podcast, “Montana Lowdown,” a show featuring in-depth conversations with the state’s political movers and shakers. In the inaugural episode, MTFP founder John S. Adams chatted with Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, an amateur golfer, experienced woodworker, retired corporate executive, and co-chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in the Montana Legislature.
It’s Ballance’s fourth session serving in the Montana Legislature. She offered insight on fractures in the House Republican caucus, the troubles caused by “kill committees,” and her concerns about Medicaid expansion in Montana. Highlights, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity, are included below.
Listen to the entire conversation in the embedded audio player. Keep up with future episodes by subscribing to “Montana Lowdown” on Spotify. The podcast will soon be available on iTunes, Google Play, and wherever you get your podcasts.
Adams: In my 10 years covering the Legislature, I’ve never really seen what we have transpiring right now, which is very open, very public disagreement among the Republican ruling party in advance of the session even starting.
We’re seeing a lot of criticism and sniping within the caucus, in this case within the House Republican caucus over the rules fights. What’s going on, and why has this become such a big deal leading up to the session?
Ballance: I think the first thing people have to ask themselves is, “Why would a House procedural rule be getting the attention and hysteria this one is getting?”
This is not a rules issue, this is a power issue. Plain and simple. We had three very knowledgeable, very experienced, very powerful senators coming over from the Senate to the House. I think there was a tremendous amount of fear about the power those three senators could potentially wield. I think, as a result of that, probably the entire interim was spent — by some people — figuring out how they would take those three senators and make sure they lost their influence. The only way you could really do that was through the rules.
Adams: Given that it was three senators — and we’re talking about Llew Jones [R-Conrad], Ed Buttrey [R-Great Falls], and Eric Moore [R-Miles City] — how did you end up in the mix of this rules fight?
Ballance: Initially I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. I looked at it through my Republican blinders. I thought, “We’ve got the power, we’ve got the rules, we can do whatever we need to do and make things happen.”
But I looked around in my first session, in 2013, and said, “Something’s not right here. We have the majority, and yet it’s not working out for the majority.” By 2015 I understood a lot better.
I was given the appropriations chair my second term, and I had a kill committee. The House Appropriations Committee was stacked so we could kill any bill that came to us.
Adams: Were you aware you were on a kill committee?
Ballance: Oh yes. Very much so. That was what we were going to do. Medicaid expansion was coming to the floor and our biggest job was to stop Medicaid expansion.
Adams: When we talk about a kill committee, explain how that works. How can a kill committee go about stopping a bill dead in its tracks?
Ballance: Just table it. If you table a bill, the only way to get it out is for 60 legislators in the House to vote to bring it out of that committee.
But Medicaid expansion never came to the Appropriations Committee. Smart legislators know how to get around the rules. It got me thinking, here I am in the majority, and yet the minority was able to get things done by manipulating the rules.
Adams: Manipulating rules, or finding loopholes?
Ballance: These were not loopholes. Democrats went to the House Speaker in 2015 and the speaker gave them, codified in rules, six “silver bullets” where they could bring bills out of committee [on a blast motion] as a simple majority vote. So the [blast] rule was 60 votes, except for these bills the Democrats wanted that they could get on a 51 [blast] vote. The 2017 session was exactly the same, except this time the deal was secret.
My issue with the rules is, they’ve been perverted to the point where these secret deals happen. That’s not the way the Legislature is supposed to work. The only way I can figure out a way to work around this elite few is to make [blast motions] transparent. Bring it back to a simple majority [51 votes instead of 60], make it clear every bill has an equal opportunity to get to the floor.
Adams: My sense is that Buttrey and Jones support Medicaid expansion. Is that something you don’t support?
Ballance: I did not support it in ’13, I did not support it in ’15. Since that time, it has been implemented … for four years. Going back now would be extremely difficult. I think we need to now find something that will work for the people of Montana, that will be the least cost, and the least offensive, I think, to the people who are on the right of this issue. I think there are some changes and reforms that need to be made to the system so we’re doing a better job of vetting who should be eligible for Medicaid and who should not.
Adams: Do you think by and large it has been good for Montana, or has it been too costly?
Ballance: I think it has been too costly for Montana. I think initially when we set out it was estimated 45,000 would enroll. Now it’s up to 100,000. We were not able to put in the controls that needed to be there.
Adams: Is that where the debate will be this session? Not necessarily eliminating expansion, but scaling it back?
Ballance: I think that’s where it would have gone during the interim. That’s what I saw people talking about. Unfortunately, I think this House rules fight will bleed over into the Medicaid expansion fight. It will be more about ideology and less about what’s the right thing to do.
Adams: It seems there are almost three caucuses in the Republican party. There’s the Solutions Caucus, which I’d say you’re a member of. Then there’s the hard-line conservative faction that maybe is about the same size —
Ballance: No, I’d say there’s a Solutions Caucus made up of moderate Republicans, very strong conservative Republicans, and some who are maybe more on the liberal side. But [the Solutions Caucus] probably makes up almost half of the [Republican] caucus.
Then the other half of the caucus is split. It’s among a few who, I’m convinced, are determined to blow this session up. The others are people coming to the Legislature with specific things in mind and want them done. They want to do the people’s work. They don’t like this fight. They don’t like what’s going on. I would say most of leadership is there, too.
Notice, the two other members of [House majority] leadership in this have not been lobbing grenades. They’re trying to quietly work behind the scenes to find ways to fix the situation.
Adams: Is it fixable?
Ballance: Oh, yes, I think it absolutely is. But the handful of people who don’t want it fixed have to be isolated and have to know their behavior is unacceptable.