Black mark 

Looking back at the lowlight of the 2013 legislature

Let's say I hate my neighbor. This premise is not true. My neighbors are college students who admire my experience and old-world charm, and we get along fine. But let's imagine that I am a jerk, and my neighbor and I live in mutual loathing. Then I get sick. I catch insidious gutworm from eating a submarine sandwich in the dog park—this part of the hypothetical did technically happen to me—and I can't afford worm medicine. Seeing that I have fallen ill, my neighbor offers me $200 to buy Vermox, but I tell him to cram it because we are enemies.

You might call me stubborn in that situation. Observing that I would rather risk my health than accept my rival's help, you might call me spiteful, even stupid. But you wouldn't say that I was unethical. It would only be unethical to refuse my neighbor's help if it were my daughter who was sick instead of me. If I let her stay worm-infested so I could tell my neighbor to stick it, you would say I was an A-plus scumbag.

I mention this distinction because the Montana House of Representatives declined federally funded Medicaid coverage for 70,000 Montanans last month. In the last days of the legislative session, Speaker Mark Blasdel sent a bipartisan bill to expand Medicaid back to committee after it had passed the Senate.

It was an unusual move in the history of the Montana Legislature, but sadly consonant with the 2013 session. Rather than implement the dreaded Obamacare, House Republicans spent the spring finding ways to refuse free money from Washington. The last best hope for expansion was Senate Bill 623, which would have used federal Medicaid dollars to buy private health insurance for some of Montana's 170,000 uninsured. On the day of its scheduled House vote, however, Blasdel used his authority as Speaker to send SB 623 back to committee, where it would almost certainly die. In the procedural objection that followed, the House voted 50 members in favor of upholding the Speaker's decision to 50 against. Tie went to the speaker, and 7 percent of Montanans lost their chance to get health insurance.

Here we encounter an imperfection in the neighbor analogy. In the vote on whether to uphold Blasdel's decision against Minority Leader Chuck Hunter's objection, 49 Republicans and one Democrat voted yes. Mark Jacobson, D-Great Falls, later told reporters that he thought his vote meant no. He supported Hunter's objection. He was mistaken, and Medicaid expansion in Montana was canceled.

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In order to make these events fit with the neighbor analogy, you would have to imagine that just as I am telling my neighbor to go to hell, my wife runs out of the house. Desperate to save our wormy child, she seizes the $200 and flushes it down the toilet. Then she pants for a few seconds and says, "Oh."

Meanwhile, the worms munch on. The sick daughters of the 2013 legislative session are the 70,000 Montanans who would have qualified for expanded Medicaid and now have to wait until 2015. In the meantime, they will have a hard time deciding who has governed them best.

Was it the Republicans, whose resentment cost Montana as much as $6.6 billion in federal dollars? Or was it the Democrats, whose 98 percent voting accuracy kept them from representing even their own interests?

It's a relevant question, because many of the 170,000 uninsured Montanans will live to vote in 2014. Statistically, they are more likely to vote in the rural districts that normally send Republicans to Helena every other year. Will 70,000 of them remember why they still don't have insurance? In denying health coverage to 7 percent of their constituents, did the Montana GOP win the 2013 session and lose the 2014 election?

I don't think so. To accept that theory, you'd have to believe that Montana would give control of its legislature to the party that botched not one but two parliamentary maneuvers this spring. That would trade intransigence for incompetence, like impeaching Nixon and replacing him with the guy who wears the Nixon mask in Point Break.

I'm not sure Montanans are that desperate. The only thing I'm sure of is that, like the guy who wears the Nixon mask in Point Break, 70,000 of us are not allowed to go to the hospital.

Probably, that is a black mark on the 2013 Montana Legislature and the men and women who served in it. All they had to do was accept money from the U.S. government, and sick Montanans would have gotten health care. But Republicans in Helena were too stubborn to represent our interests, and Democrats were too disorganized.

Our representatives' failure to implement the federally mandated expansion of Medicaid was an ignominious end to an embarrassing legislative session. The parties upheld their differences, but the distinction wound up being between the unethical and the merely dumb. That doesn't represent the people of Montana—neither our common interests nor our common sense. The 2013 legislature should have done better, and it's frustrating to think how easily they might have.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.

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