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  • Margie MacDonald

Reflections on the 2023 session at midpoint

As we look back over the first half of the 2023 session, four major themes have emerged that align closely with Big Sky 55+ priorities:

  • The statewide meltdown in senior long-term care with 11 nursing homes closing.

  • How to spend Montana’s once-in-a-generation budget surplus: invest it in seniors, children, schools, and affordable housing, or give it away to rich folks? The legislature has introduced dozens of bills to change Montana’s tax system and to rebate the surplus.

  • Attacks on Montana’s Constitution from damaging, piecemeal amendments by referenda as well as attacks on the independence and important role of the Judicial Branch.

  • How to address the crisis in housing affordability and access across the state.

On Thursday, Big Sky 55+ held a virtual town hall on the first half of the session exploring some of the dominant themes and trends, and the prospects moving forward. Watch the recording here.


Senior Long-Term Care

Montanans are watching closely to see whether senior long-term care will survive the 2023 Legislature. Dozens of nursing homes and assisted living facilities sit on the brink of closure. This is also the case in other provider areas, including home-based community services for adults with disabilities, behavioral health for children, and group homes for adults with developmental disabilities.

This is a very bipartisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats agree overwhelmingly on the importance of allocating state surplus dollars to address this crisis, and many have faulted the Governor and his administration for failing to meet this challenge during the interim.

HB 649 (Caferro, D-Helena) would bring the reimbursement rates for providers of Medicaid services to seniors in skilled nursing care up to a minimum benchmark of costs. This benchmark was identified in a $2 million study (the Guidehouse study, available on our website HERE) commissioned by the Legislature in 2021 and completed in mid-2022.

  • HB 649 was heard on Thursday in the House Appropriations Committee, where dozens of Montanans made the case to keep our nursing homes and group homes open in the face of enormous headwinds caused by Covid, workforce shortages, and inflation.

Please contact members of the House Appropriations Committee and ask them to support HB 649.


HB 2, the state’s biennium budget: As it stands now HB 2 still falls $25 million (general fund) short of the amount needed to fully fund these services. (Note: the $25 million from the state would generate a $50 million match from the federal government.)

  • HB 2 passed out of the Appropriations Committee short of the mark and is headed for a vote on the floor of the House.

Even if you already sent a message to the House Appropriations Committee regarding this bill, please send a message to the full House asking them to fully fund the recommended benchmark provider rates.


Protecting our Constitution and an Independent Judiciary

“There is no liberty if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers.” Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 78.

Dozens of bills have been introduced to undermine the judicial branch. While many of the bills were tabled, several still survive or have been passed into law. A Constitutional amendment to mess with the Court’s independence is also still pending introduction.

According to attorney Nikki Zupanic of Upper Seven Law who spoke during our virtual Town Hall on March 16, the attacks fall under four categories:

1. Injecting partisanship into the judiciary.

2. Reducing access to relief from harm caused by unconstitutional laws.

3. Putting up barriers to citizen access to the courts (requiring bonds, etc.) and

4. Undermining the public’s faith in the judiciary by altering the judicial standards.

SB 191 (S. Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls) was signed by the Governor on March 6. It limits the ability of courts to prohibit actions and prevent harm to plaintiffs. Laws enacted by the Legislature would have to inflict harm before the court considering a challenge to the law could suspend the law. Had SB 191 been in effect in 2022, it would have disenfranchised thousands of Montanans by preventing them from voting using student IDs while constitutional challenges were pending in the courts.

SJ 15 (McGillvray, R-Billings) passed out of the Senate and is scheduled in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning. It baldly asserts “that the belief that the court has exclusive authority to interpret the constitution and that its decisions are binding on the other two branches is a myth based on a faulty understanding of Marbury v. Madison.” As a resolution, it has little or no effect on anything, except perhaps to call into question the good sense and basic education of the majority in the Senate.


Take Action! HB 517 Challenges Montana’s High Quality Higher Education

On Tuesday, Big Sky 55+ Vice Chair Jon Ellingson testified against HB 517 (Hopkins, R-Missoula). The bill would amend the constitution to allow the legislature to enact laws “requiring the regents to adopt and maintain certain policies and practices” that the legislature believes protect student rights. The bill alters the independent authority of the Board of Regents to govern the Montana University System.

  • It erodes the independence of the University system, with unknowable outcomes.

  • It is similar to the bill where Montana lawmakers assert that legislators, not courts, can interpret and determine what is constitutional.

  • It's an illogical, loopy conundrum to try to unravel what, in fact, this amendment will achieve.

  • One certainty is that it will open the door to plenty of litigation to try to figure that out. There should be a hefty fiscal note, should this be enacted!

The hearing surfaced Americans for Prosperity and a closely connected organization, Students for Liberty, claiming they felt their abilities to exercise their first amendment and second amendment rights on Montana campuses were under attack. However, when questioned, there was no evidence that either the Regents or campus administrators had overruled constitutional rights of students.

The hearing also brought forward elected student leaders who articulated the case against the amendment and maintained that it would undermine Montana’s higher education system. The Commissioner of Higher Education’s attorney, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the League of Women Voters, and the Friends of the Montana Constitution also testified to their strong opposition to this proposal to amend the constitution.

The bill’s sponsor argued that the Montana University System operates outside the laws of Montana and the constitution. This is as absurd and refutable as it sounds.

Mary Sheehy Moe wrote an excellent op-ed about HB 517. You can read it here.

Two laws passed in 2021 impacting campuses sparked litigation in Montana courts which ultimately invalidated them.

  • One law would have allowed students to carry concealed weapons on campus and in the dorms, without regulation or oversight of the campus administrators or the Regents to protect student safety.

  • Another bill prohibited the ability of student groups to engage in voter turn-out activities on campuses.

  • Ironically, it was the first amendment right of Forward Montana to help students vote that was upheld by the Court, although the case wasn’t argued on civil liberty grounds.

The Montana University System is a highly successful economic engine achieving accolades and recognition well above its counterparts of similar size.

  • In partnership with the legislative and executive branches, Regents have managed to hold the line on the lowest tuition in the region.

  • They have streamlined the system, created dual enrollment opportunities for Montana high school students, and made credits interchangeable across units in the system.

  • Montana’s two flagship campuses are both now “R1” research institutions, a status conferred by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education organization. The status places UM and MSU among the top research institutions in the country.

  • The flagships also have produced an exceptional number of Rhodes Scholars, Truman Scholars, and Goldwater Scholars, recognizing the highest standards of academic achievement by students and their faculty.

HB 517 plays Russian roulette with Montana’s highly respected and high-quality university system. Contact Montana House members and ask them to vote NO on HB 517.

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