HELENA -- After a lengthy debate, the bill to continue Medicaid expansion in Montana failed to pass the Senate on a 25-25 vote last week and several attempts to revive it Friday and Saturday also failed, leaving it stalled.

House Bill 658, would have continued the program passed in 2015 that provides healthcare coverage to about 96,000 Montanans. The new bill, which would add work requirements, forcing eligible enrollees to record 80 hours per month, is carried in the Senate by Republican Sen. Jason Small from Busby.

“There’s never a one-size-fits-all-solution to any problem, but this is a good start,” Small said. “It’s going to help people go back to work. It’s going to make people healthy again. It’s going to get them off their addictions and able to once again function in society and they can become members of a healthy and productive workforce. ”

Some opponents of the bill, like Republican Senate President Scott Sales, say the program spends too much federal money, using about $700 million in federal funding every year.

“This isn’t a Republican problem, it’s not a Democrat problem, it’s our problem. We have got to get back to the point where we live within our means to some degree,” Sales said.  “Just because the federal government is going to give us a bunch of quote-unquote free money that they’ve created out of thin air doesn’t mean in the long run, this is going to be a good deal for anybody.”

Lawmakers did pass several amendments to the bill Thursday, including one that added a 2025 expiration date to the program. Since the bill failed its initial vote, all amendments added during the debate also died.

Last month, the House passed the bill 61-37.

Sexual Assault Bills Pass

Two bills aimed at cracking down on sexual assault in Montana have full clearance from the Legislature and have reached the governor’s desk.

Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula and Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, teamed up to draft the proposals. Sands founded the first rape crisis center and the Women’s Resource Center on the University of Montana campus in the 1960s. Dudik has worked as a prosecutor of sexual abuse cases.

Senate Bill 52 aims to streamline the testing of sexual assault kits and Senate Bill 261 revises consent laws to protect against abuses of power. Both are carried by Sands and passed both chambers by wide margins.

This legislation builds off policies passed in the 2017 legislative session, like Senate Bill 29, which removed the word “force” from rape laws and increased penalties for aggravated sexual assault. 

According to an annual report from Montana’s Department of Justice, the forensic lab that tests sexual assault kits in the state, saw an 86 percent increase in sexual assault cases between 2013 and 2017. SB 52 requires the department to track the kits throughout the testing process and also puts a timeline in place for kits to be given to law enforcement.

“(A sexual assault kit) is one of the key infrastructure pieces in prosecuting sexual assault,” Sands said.

The other bill, SB 261, which has now been signed into law, negates the defense of consent if there is a clear imbalance of power between two people who engage in sexual activity. The bill uses the example of a witness of a crime and an investigating officer as a case in which  consent could not be used as a viable defense. Another example included is a parent and an employee of the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The law aims to prevent a person from abusing his or her power to coerce another person to consent to sex. Sands said the bill closes a loophole, and is similar to prohibiting the defense of consent when an adult has sex with a minor.

Both bills earned bipartisan support. SB 52 passed 98-0 and SB 261 passed 96-2 out of the House.

Montana Lawmakers Debate The Future Of Montana Wolves

The future of the gray wolf in Montana has led to a tug-of-war between conservationists and ranchers over policy proposals in the Legislature, and both sides have claimed victories.

On Thursday, a Senate committee advanced two house bills that would make wolf hunting licenses cheaper. Rep. Bob Brown, a Republican from Thompson Falls, is carrying House Bill 407  and House Bill 280, which would reduce the licence fee from $19 to $12 and add more of a discount for class AAA combination sports licenses.

“This is an attempt to make your hunting experience a little more affordable and to put more legal wolf hunters out on the range,” Brown said.

A wide variety of proponents were able to agree on these particular bills, including the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

However, Brown has two other wolf-related bills that have been stalled or killed in committee. House Bill 551 would have allowed for wolf hunting at night, and failed to pass the House 44-56. House Bill 279 would have given reimbursements to trappers for fees incurred while trapping wolves, but failed the Senate 23-27, and then was postponed indefinitely.

Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, said during debate on the bill that it would not do anything to help mitigate wolf populations, but makes trapping a contest.

“It has always been unlawful to essentially have a prize for killing animals in the state of Montana, and this would be an exception to this,” Cohenour said.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, wolves were eradicated in Montana by 1930. However, populations have steadily revived over the years due to conservation efforts. Debates have been flaring over how to manage those populations.

Another bill moving through the Legislature would have an interim committee study the cost and value of grizzly bears and wolves in the state. Senate Joint Resolution 7 asks for a committee to weigh the economic benefits of the animals against the threats to agriculture. 

Encouraging Development of Mental Health Resources

Montana lawmakers have advanced a bill that would qualify behavioral health peer support services as medical assistance under the state’s Medicaid program.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines a peer support specialist as someone who uses personal experience with mental illness and/or addiction combined with formal training to promote recovery and resilience in behavioral health.

The goal is for the certified support specialist to draw from personal experience to guide someone else through recovery.

Montana ranks number one in suicides per capita, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

According to the Montana Department of Justice, the state ranks second in alcohol-related deaths. Mental illness has reached epidemic levels in the state, the justice department reports.

Senate Bill 30 aims to encourage the expansion of mental health care services by incentivizing support specialists with funding. It also would create a mental health services special revenue account using $2.5 million collected through a tax on medical marijuana.

SB 30 has been amended significantly since it was first introduced. Originally, reimbursements for certified peer support specialists would have come from Medicaid expansion, but that language was taken out.

In the bill’s initial January hearing, Earl Sutherland, a clinical psychologist from Hardin, said peer support services fill a gap in services in rural communities.

“Peer support offers something else nothing else has -- someone who can show they are strong in their recovery,” Sutherland said.

SB 30 has now cleared the House Appropriations Committee, meaning it only needs to clear one more Senate vote before it’s considered by the governor. 

Bill Would Make Sharing Humiliating Photos of Seniors a Crime

About three years ago at a nursing home in Hubbard, Iowa, a nursing assistant was fired for sharing a photograph on Snapchat of a resident with dementia who had soiled himself. But, at the time, the assistant wasn’t breaking Iowa law.

“In the state of Iowa, you could take a picture of a senior or a person with a developmental disability. You could hang a sign around their neck, humiliate them, put it up on social media and it’d be OK,” Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, said at a hearing last week. “I asked some folks here at the state. I said, ‘would this be illegal in Montana?’ And they said no.”

Jacobson is sponsoring Senate Bill 324, which would classify sharing a humiliating photo or video of a senior citizen who has an expectation of privacy as elder abuse.

The first offense of elder abuse is only a misdemeanor, with up to six months jail time and a $500 fine. But second offenses bump up to felonies, with up to 10 years jail time and a $10,000 fine.

The bill only covers seniors with developmental disabilities, like alzheimer's or dementia. But, Beth Brenneman with Disability Rights Montana said during a public hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Thursday, seniors with developmental disabilities are especially vulnerable.

“Yep, everybody’s got a camera on them these days. Unfortunately, people that really need help in the most intimate ways are really vulnerable to exploitation in that way,” she said.

The Senate voted 40-10 to pass the bill earlier this month and the House advanced it 99-1 last week. It is now in the House Appropriations Committee.

Bills Clear Way for Sports Betting in Montana

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal gambling law, giving individual states the power to legalize and regulate sports gambling. Now, Montana could join the 10 states that have already passed legislation opening up sports betting.

In the Montana Legislature last week, the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee heard testimony on two bills that would legalize sports betting and regulate it through the Board of Horse Racing and the Montana Lottery. Both organizations have no oversight from the Gambling Control Division.

Both bills passed out of the House last month, with House Bill 475 passing 87-9 and House Bill 725 with a 88-10 vote.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, sponsored House Bill 475, which would expand pool-based horse betting systems into other team sports.

“For those of us who don’t bet, it really has no impact on us. For those who like to bet, it’s an opportunity from them to do that in a way that is organized and well maintained,” Tschida said.

The second bill, House Bill 725, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, would allow the Montana State Lottery to offer sports betting, which already offers pool-based betting for football and auto racing.

“The reason the Lottery makes sense is that it’s already existing. So we have existing infrastructure that’s been already laid out across the state. What this does would allow the Lottery to authority and the opportunity to offer sports wagering within communities,” Lynch said.

There were no opponents to either bill during the committee hearing.

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 Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.

Cover photo: Aerial view of Lubec Lake in Glacier County, Montana by Darryl L. Flowers/Fairfield Sun Times