Major legislation requires the melding of multiple perspectives.
Modern technology ensures my receipt of a constant stream of constituent texts and emails representing their perspectives, often generated by the request of proactive lobbyists hoping to drive home a viewpoint via constituent voices. Lobbyists often provide a form letter to constituent groups, which then fill my email with multiple copies of the same letter. On occasion I contact local constituents about their “form letter” request. It is disappointing if they are either unaware of what was requested or even in disagreement when the request they sent is discussed.
For example, I was pinged by a group to “kill” House Bill 2, the main state funding bill, because it did not contain enough money for special education. Killing HB2 would result in no money for special education, thus this request makes little sense.
Medicaid expansion did pass the House with my support. As promised, I acceded to the request of every medical facility and most of the chambers in my region and voted for the bill once I confirmed it contained a work requirement, an asset test, an agreement where Hutterite colonies pay premiums, and several other key reforms.
As an employer that provides healthcare, I was not pleased that part of the funding was generated from a 2.75 percent premium tax on Montana State Fund (MSF). I do concede there is a nexus:
•54 percent of Montana businesses have employees that use Medicaid Expansion for their healthcare.
•Employers benefit from healthy employees that have access to healthcare, especially in cases of addiction and substance abuse.
•There has been a dramatic savings from reductions in workplace injuries over the last three years that appear correlated with the original Medicaid Expansion (HELP Act) coming online.
This reduction in workplace injuries helped drive the recent 8 percent reduction in MSF rates. As the Medicaid bill was on a tight schedule to meet transmittal deadlines between the House and Senate, there was little time to amend on the House side. I will follow up in the Senate relative to the MSF nexus component.
Another multifaceted topic is the spiraling cost of the Office of Public Defender. In 2007, in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU condemning Montana’s criminal defense system, the state assumed the constitutionally required public defender mission from counties and municipalities. The state did so by creating the Office of Public Defender.
Since its inception, the Office of Public Defender has been a money pit. First, increased drug-use cases, combined with correlated increases in child abuse and neglect, have flooded the courts. Second, less obvious but every bit as critical, when the state assumed Office of Public Defender, it became a third-party payer. Counties and municipalities, freed from the burden of direct payment (skin in the game), became copious consumers of the new, state-financed system.
While the local taxpayer is no longer being hit by counties and cities via property tax levies, their pocketbook is instead being drained as a growing portion of state tax dollars is directed to Office of Public Defender. I am part of an effort to responsibly bring all state and local government entities to the table to address this problem. I understand the reluctance of the counties and cities to engage, given their current situation has limited fiscal risk.
Not surprisingly, their lobby has been messaging that the state is simply looking to “raid local entitlement share.”
Bottom-line: Local elected officials control deployment of the Office of Public Defender, requiring the state to direct every increasing tax dollar to that office. The spiraling cost increase “entitles” the taxpayer to expect all their elected officials, both local and state, to come up with a cost-effective solution. It will take city, county and state government working together to stop Office of Public Defender’s out-of-control spending.
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Llew Jones, a Republican from Conrad, represents House District 18 and can be reached at Llew.Jones@mtleg.gov or at 289-0345 for voice and text.