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House Bill 332, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, was tabled Friday by the House Appropriations Committee on a 13-10 vote. The bill proposed investing $60 million in one-time funds to establish a statewide health insurance trust for public school employees.
Bedey and other supporters, including the Montana School Boards Association, argued that such a trust would help drive down costs for struggling districts and increase take-home pay for teachers.
However, two Republican lawmakers expressed concern over the level of funding requested and the amount of time — five years — that participating districts would be required to stick with the trust before being able to withdraw. Speaking with Montana Free Press Friday, Bedey said the final vote tally was unexpected, particularly given the broad bipartisan support for HB 332 on the House floor earlier in the week.
“What most surprised me was the Democrats who voted against it,” Bedey said. “They didn’t speak against the bill, so I’m flabbergasted.”
Several Democrats on the committee joined with Republican hardliners in voting against the proposal, a sign the minority party has turned to hardball negotiations as budget talks heat up. Several Democrats have told MTFP they realize that the Republican caucus, despite its dominant majority, has internal schisms. And while minority-party Democrats have historically sided with comparatively moderate GOP lawmakers on big-ticket policy goals, they’ve said they don’t have to lend their votes to the majority if they feel they’re not getting anything in return.
Other bills, including Senate Bill 47, a proposal to bring the state’s commercial drivers license regulations in line with federal requirements; House Bill 321, a conservation district and school funding bill; and House Bill 402, another Bedey measure concerning voter citizenship requirements, have faced similar fates at the hands of unconventional bipartisan coalitions, whether on the floor or in committee.
“I think the folks in appropriations are taking up some space right now on proposals because we have priorities,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, told reporters at a press conference Friday. “If people are expecting our votes to move priorities, even if we like them, we need our priorities funded too. We have good ideas in this building, and we want to see them get fair hearings. We want to see them move.”
Abbott listed increased health care provider rates and a “serious investment in housing” as Democratic priorities that the caucus wants to push.
While HB 332 has been tabled, there are still procedural opportunities to revive it and other stalled measures should enough lawmakers agree to do so. Abbott suggested as much in the press conference.
“You guys know that tabling bills is often a temporary thing,” she said.
Bedey said he couldn’t speculate about the individual motivations of Democrats on the appropriations committee, but said he suspects the “anomalous votes” in committee and on the floor this week are due to “internal political machinations” designed to gain some advantage.
“I don’t think that the votes you see here reflect careful analysis of policy,” he said. “I think that they’re expressions of political maneuvering. And there’s a lot of reasons for that, and this is politics and this is Helena, and this time in the session right before transmittal is a time when those sorts of things tend to happen.”
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