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  • Margie MacDonald

Let's Get This Over With!

Legislative Bulletin #14, April 24, 2023

Many Montanans are groaning as they read of the latest news from the legislature:

  • a bill that would effectively gut the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) being introduced well past the deadline for bill introduction,

  • efforts to silence and censure one of the only transgender members of the Legislature,

  • the unprecedented number of bills working their way through the chambers, and

  • the variety of substantive changes that will soon impact Montanans' lives.

It seems like it would be a good idea for the legislature to wrap it up and go home!


Montanans simply are asking lawmakers to address things that make our lives better:

  • fixing our community elder care, including stopping the closure of nursing homes;

  • helping young workers with childcare, so they can get to work;

  • helping Montanans perhaps live in the same community where they can find a job.


With single-party control of the Legislature and the executive branch, lawmakers have taken some wide swings at social issues and culture wars, even garnering national attention on some legislation.

Republicans took umbrage when, during the debate on SB 99 (denying gender affirming care for youth under 18), Rep. Zooey Zephyr (Missoula) stood to express her deep pain and worry for children who have attempted suicide in Montana following the series of bills singling them out for discrimination and denying them critical health care services.

House Speaker Matt Regier (Kalispell) escalated the conflict by acceding to calls from within the Republican caucus to deny Rep. Zephyr's “voice” on the House floor. Others throughout the session have spoken passionately on bills without facing this type of censure. The controversy has put Montana in a negative light, drawing national news coverage and comparison to the train wreck that is the Tennessee legislature.

Part of being a leader is to be able to bridge the conflict and figure out how to navigate the choppy waters of strong feelings and deeply diverse viewpoints toward a place where the work can be done with a mutual level of decorum, civility, and respect.

Big Sky 55+ stands in solidarity with Rep. Zephyr, and we call on House leadership to ensure that all members feel safe to speak on issues that affect them and their constituencies. We urge leaders of this Legislature to rise above the present controversy and focus on the real needs of Montanans.


HJ 28 - Interim study of continuum of long-term care services

By the beginning of the NEXT biennium (2026-2027) the first cohort of the Baby Boom generation (born in 1946-1947) will turn 80.

  • 80 is a stage in life when the need for supportive services accelerates rapidly.

  • People over 85 require five times as much help with personal care as those 65-74.

  • What we do now, during this biennium, will have enormous impact on how these older Montanans are able to find healthy, independent living opportunities and not prematurely find themselves in need of high acuity skilled nursing or assisted living care.

Overwhelmingly, Americans wish to remain in their communities as long as possible. This is also cost effective! The median annual cost of care in 2021 was:

  • Nursing Facility: $108,405

  • Assisted Living: $54,000

  • Home and Community Based Services: $25,900

One thing that has been made clear in 2023 is that no part of Montana's government is ready for this rapidly growing cohort with high needs: not the Legislature, not the Governor and the executive branch, and not our community agencies!

Last week Big Sky 55+ worked with lawmakers of both parties to craft HJ 28, an interim study of continuum of long-term care services. This interim study will:

  • take a comprehensive look at the whole continuum of services to elders in our communities,

  • analyze where older Montanans live and where they are in life, and

  • ensure a continuum of appropriate services from in home support to skilled nursing.

HJ 28, sponsored by Rep. Mike Yakawich (R-Billings) and co-signed by 36 bipartisan lawmakers, passed out of House Human Services on Friday and will soon be on the floor of the House.

Please reach out to the full House membership to support this important interim study!


Update on HB 649

Rep. Mary Caferro (D-Helena) presented HB 649, “Implement rates from the provider rate study,” to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee on Friday morning in a rapid-fire series of hearings with limited testimony.

Thank you to you early birds who called and left messages for the committee early Friday morning!

Proponents argued that the bill provides an important bridge toward giving nursing homes and community-based caregivers sufficient reimbursements to try to recruit and retain workers in a competitive labor market.

  • Sixty percent of Montana nursing home beds are occupied by patients who have gone through their savings and rely on Medicaid to cover their healthcare costs.

  • Adults with disabilities living independently who require caregiving in order to participate in jobs and community also cannot find caregivers and are struggling.

  • If the state reimbursement rate is far below the labor market, it puts nursing homes, group homes and community-based caregivers under water.

  • That is why the state lost 11 nursing homes and many group homes for adults with developmental disabilities in 2022.

HB 649 would add $15 million to help with provider rates. As amended by the House Appropriations Committee, it no longer meets the Guidehouse study minimum benchmark rates, but it should help stem the tide of nursing and group home closures.

We are asking Senators to vote FOR HB 649! You can still send in your comments on this bill.


HB 774 tabled by Senate State Administration

This 118 page bill would have radically changed Montana’s election system. It aimed to put almost all elections on the same ballot on even year primary and general election calendars, overshadowing the importance of local concerns with the highly partisan and expensive top ticket races for federal and statewide offices.

HB 774 was roundly criticized by three former Secretaries of State (Republican and Democrats) in an Op-Ed that you can read here.

The bill was amended by the House Appropriations Committee to address concerns of school boards, but those amendments were so confusing and problematic that the sponsor, Rep. Mike Hopkins (R-Missoula) and the school boards presented a whole raft of new amendments during Tuesday’s hearings on the bill before it was finally tabled.

Cities, counties, election administrators, teachers, the MT Federation of Public Employees and Big Sky 55+ all strongly opposed the bill at the hearing.


HB 819 is now the omnibus affordable housing compromise


On Wednesday, the Senate Business and Labor Committee amended HB 819, sponsored by Rep. Paul Green (R-Hardin) “Create Montana community reinvestment act to fund workforce housing”, to wrap in elements of bills that Big Sky 55+ supported for workforce and affordable senior housing, including:

  • Rep. Dave Fern’s (D-Whitefish) HB 546 to create a revolving loan fund for low-income and moderate-income housing loans from the permanent coal tax trust fund,

  • Speaker Matt Regier (R-Kalispell) and Minority Leader Kim Abbott’s (D-Helena) HB 927 to put $130 million in coal trust dollars into housing loans, and

  • Gov. Gianforte’s HB 825 carried by Rep. Mike Hopkins (R-Missoula) creating infrastructure grants to cities and towns that adopt reforms in zoning and planning programs to facilitate affordable housing.

HB 819 bill as amended puts $50 million into a community reinvestment account that enables regional community reinvestment organizations to reduce the cost of housing by assisting with deed restricted affordable mortgages for Montana’s workforce.

The amended bill also allows an additional $50 million of Coal Trust fund revolving loans for workforce housing, and puts $50 million in the Hopkins infrastructure bill.


HB 971, taking aim at MEPA, is about to pass the House

HB 971 would prohibit the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from considering climate change when it analyzes environmental impacts and accepts public comment on projects under MEPA. The legislative rules were suspended to allow Rep. Josh Kassmier (R-Ft. Benton) to introduce the bill on April 14, long after deadlines. Big Sky 55+ opposed the bill on Monday in a time-limited hearing, along with dozens of Montanans who traveled or Zoomed in from all over the state to oppose the bill. It passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee and passed second reading 71-29 in the House on Friday.


HB 889 protecting manufactured home owners’ rights passes in the Senate!

By a sizable margin, HB 889, Rep. Jonathan Karlen’s bill to provide a more even playing field for owners of manufactured homes who rent lots in mobile home parks, passed the Senate 30-20. Because the bill was amended in the Senate, it will need to get through the House: one more round of votes to accept the amendment and then final passage of the bill.

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