(UM Legislative News Service) In his final State of the State address Thursday night, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock laid out his priorities for this legislative session, including Medicaid expansion, access and funding for education, and repairing Montana’s crumbling infrastructure.
Bullock also used the speech to highlight a lower unemployment rate, increases in wheat and barley production and fewer uninsured Montanans since he took office in 2013.
“I am pleased to report the state of our state is stronger than ever,” Bullock said.
In his push for Medicaid expansion, Bullock emphasized the economic benefits of the program to businesses and the economy, rather than just the gains of Medicaid recipients.
“I have heard about the need to support our businesses. With almost three out of every five of businesses in our state relying on Medicaid to provide healthcare for at least some of their employees, you aren’t supporting our businesses big and small if you roll back the gains we’ve made with Medicaid expansion,” Bullock said.
A recent study from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana found that expansion introduced up to $400 million of spending in the state’s economy.
Bullock also ticked off advancements in K-12 and college education in Montana, saying under his administration, the state has increased access to internet in schools, helped enroll more high school students in dual credit programs, and froze tuition for Montana University System students.
“The future leaders of our state deserve no less,” he said.
The governor also made the case for his proposed $30 million public preschool program.
Another top priority, he said, is for the Legislature to pass an infrastructure package. Republicans have expressed opposition to the use of bonding, or borrowing, to pay for infrastructure, and complained that past packages did not address rural infrastructure.
“I included a $44 million grant program for Montana’s natural resource communities, largely, in Northern and Eastern Montana, that are impacted by fossil fuel development,” Bullock said.
Bullock is proposing paying for public works through a mix of cash and bonds.
The governor said he will also insist on no less than a $300 million “rainy day” fund included in the Legislature’s final budget. That would require more revenue, and that means tax increases, which Bullock has proposed to tack onto accommodations, rental cars, liquor, tobacco and licenses for investment advisors.
Republican Senate President Scott Sales from Bozeman gave a rebuttal to the State of the State address. He agreed that Montana’s economy is doing well, but says he is disturbed by the government’s growth.
Sales said the state has a high reliance on a federal government that is trillions of dollars in debt.
“Unfortunately, we’re passing on a debt to future generations, our kids and our grandkids, a debt that they can never repay,” Sales said.
Sales says Montanans are fortunate to have an abundance of natural resources and that the state should be developing the timber, copper, hardrock mine and coal industries. He says the current administration has blocked development in these sectors.
As for state-subsidized health care, Sales said, “The best health care program that anybody can have is a good job so they can buy their own health care.”
Sales ended his speech by saying Republicans are committed to passing a budget within the state’s means, and one that is free from the governor’s proposed tax increases.
Shaylee Ragar is a reporter 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.