By BETH WOHLBERG
No one can reasonably argue that the 1999 legislative session protected the environment. Legislators known for their commitment to environmental issues felt helpless in a session that produced three bills to overturn Initiative 137, the citizen-approved measure to ban cyanide heap leach mining, and several bills to eliminate or amend the initiative process itself, a powerful tool for environmentalists.
In fact, these legislators felt more confident about the bills they defeated than the ones that passed.
"When the majority party is relatively anti-environment, we have to be concerned about beating bills back," says Rep. Ron Erickson (D-Missoula).
In addition to defeating bills that would have completely overturned Initiative 137 and the initiative process, environmentally-minded legislators expressed relief at killing HB 486, which would have required the Department of Environmental Quality to consider "institutional controls" for remedial actions. An institutional control can be an easement, agreement or even a sign that restricts use on a property because of the risks to public health, safety and the environment.
|No one can reasonably argue that the 1999 legislative session protected the environment.|
Legislators also killed HB 559, a bill that would have required state agencies to compensate an owner if their property was taken for, or damaged by, public use. A property owner can claim that their property was "taken" simply because of state regulations that they were forced to comply with.
For example, if Smurfit-Stone is told by the state to decrease its pollution at the Frenchtown Mill, this bill could have required the state to pay the company for complying with those regulations, since the right to pollute is a property right, says Ann Hedges, a lobbyist with the Montana Environmental Information Center.
"[Under this bill] if you made the rules more stringent, then you would have to compensate the property owner," Hedges says. "Under current law, courts are required to balance out the provision of protecting property with other ones for protecting public health and safety."
This isn't the first time legislators saw a "takings" bill introduced; it's been considered, and defeated, in each of the last three sessions, Hedges says. "We think there should be term limits on bills," she adds.
However, the session did produce some surprising, but fairly inconspicuous, bills that took small steps for the environment.
Sen. Jon Ellingson (D-Missoula), introduced a net metering bill that would allow residents that use alternative power sources to receive credit on their power bills (See "Info," p. 6). Two mine bills also passed-HB 183 and SB 49-that deal with mine reclamation. HB 183 allows the state to review the money set aside for reclamation more frequently. This issue arose after the state discovered that there wasn't enough reclamation money for the Zortman-Landusky mines, located on the Fort Belknap Reservation. The mine company had declared bankruptcy and the state was suddenly in charge of reclamation. The second bill establishes a fund to reclaim abandoned mine lands. Right now, the money set aside for reclamation ends up in state agencies' general budgets, so the funds often don't go to "on-the-ground cleanup," says Jeff Barber of the Montana Environmental Information Center.
Despite the limited success of environmental bills this session, legislators who have been working for environmental issues aren't completely dismayed. Many Democrats have already set their sights on the next session, with environmental bills in mind.
They just need a few weeks to recover from battling what many of them call "anti-environment" legislation.
By KEN PICARD
Few will argue that the biennial machinations of the Montana Legislature are conducive to anyone's mental health, but rarely has that notion been demonstrated quite as literally as it was during the 1999 legislative session. For the nearly 25,000 poor or seriously mentally ill Montana residents whose mental health care has been managed by Magellan Behavioral Health, 1999 may be remembered as the year the Legislature sacrificed a limb in order to save an already emaciated body.
At the end of March, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services and Magellan announced that they had reached an agreement to terminate Magellan's five-year, $400 million contract to manage the state's Mental Health Access Plan (MHAP). The move, spurred by the Legislature's Joint Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, came in the wake of repeated complaints from both mental health care providers and consumers throughout the state that Magellan was disputing treatment costs, delaying reimbursement checks and scrimping on services.
The problems became so acute that in February, the Western Montana Mental Health Center in Kalispell, which relies on Medicaid reimbursements for about 80 percent of its annual budget, came within several days of closing its doors for two weeks and laying off 400 of its 426 employees.
Steve Niemi, senior vice president for Magellan Behavioral Health, blames the contract cancellation on a number of administrative and systemic problems that existed prior to Magellan's involvement in Montana, as well as on a state legislature that envisioned too bold an approach to managed mental health care without a willingness to allocate sufficient funding.
In fact, many of Montana's troubles originated with CMG Health Inc., the state's original contractor. Merit Behavioral Care Corp. bought CMG in September 1997, and Magellan bought Merit in February 1998.
In an open letter to the citizens of Montana, Magellan wrote: "We have come to realize that the [Mental Health Access Plan] as it is currently structured, cannot succeed. ... Ultimately, no matter how this program is managed in the future, either more money must be put into the program, or services-and people served-will need to be reduced."
John Lynn, deputy director of the Western Montana Mental Health Center, the state's largest mental health care provider, is critical of both Magellan and the deal the state struck with the company, saying the terms are so favorable to Magellan that the company will be reimbursed for all the fines they've paid in the past and will regain control of a $12.8 million reserve fund originally set aside to pay unpaid claims.
"Magellan will leave the state with buckets full of money and a whole lot of unpaid claims," Lynn said.
More importantly, Lynn says the Magellan fiasco will have "a very serious adverse effect" on the nearly 2,500 clients they now serve. Although his facilities are trying not to deny services to any of their clients, Lynn admits that recent cutbacks and layoffs will inevitably diminish the quality of service they can provide. Mental health workers who currently see 16 or 17 clients will likely see their caseload double in the coming months.
Lynn is not the only one critical of the state's managed mental health care program. Michael Regnier with the Coalition of Montanans Concerned with Disabilities says that MHAP, which provides mental health care for Medicaid recipients and the uninsured, has been underfunded and "was broken from day one."
"Our greatest fear was that the Legislature would get in the middle of this thing, and they did," said Regnier.
The result of Magellan's pullout and the state's unwillingness to beef up spending is that eligibility for various mental health services may be reduced for those existing at 200 percent of the national poverty level down to 150 percent. Such a move, says Regnier, creates an atmosphere of fear and anxiety among a mentally ill population which is already disenfranchised and underrepresented by a system driven more by cost concerns than patients' priorities.
An interim, fee-for-services system (similar to the one that existed before managed care was implemented) is scheduled to take effect when the state's contract with Magellan expires June 30. In the meantime, SB 534, which has passed both houses and is currently awaiting Gov. Racicot's signature, calls for a new mental health delivery system to be implemented by July 1, 2000.
By ZACH DUNDAS
This week, Molly Ivins calls Marc Racicot out. No word on whether Montana's wunder-guv plans to meet Ivins at the bike racks behind school, but the challenge is clear.
To wit: "He's immensely popular, with 80 percent approval ratings, and has never done a thing."
The super-slick Racicot isn't the kind to sputter at anything, but if he wants to offer a retort to Ivins' carpetbagging critique, he might very well point to one of the most ambitious undertakings of his two terms in office. The Jobs and Income initiative, a wide-ranging package aimed at retrofitting Montana's economy for a new, shinier future, was trotted out to great fanfare at the beginning of the session. Now, as Helena sees the end of its biennial convocation of the wise, Racicot can boast of great success for the smorgasbord of tax and economic reform that raised some eyebrows on its introduction.
Jobs and Income was the product of a collaboration between an administration anxious to assemble an actual legacy and a joint select committee of legislators hoping to improve the lot of constituents who are notoriously some of America's lowest paid people.
Ranging in scope from the mundane (shearing away the state's 6 percent business equipment tax) to the hyper-futuristic (luring NASA's VentureStar space plane), J&I sketched a vision of a 21st century far removed from a past that centered on extractive industry and hard agricultural toil.
Unfortunately, it also looked suspiciously high-concept, like a pipe dream that might founder in the Legislature's rough and tumble. Now, though, it seems like Racicot's polished sales pitch and some competent legislative management has seen many of J&I's most important components through to victory.
The work of the joint select committee, which took the unusual step of meeting frequently in between the 1997 and 1999 sessions to fine-tune the plan, insured that J&I received broad bipartisan support. For example, while conservatives like Doug Mood and Mike Taylor sponsored some J&I bills, liberal Democrats like Mignon Waterman sponsored others.
Among other achievements springing from J&I: Legislators managed to push along the state's incremental reforms of the state's burdensome property taxes; stoked research and development programs aimed at helping small business; scuttled the business equipment tax; opened Montana to companies that buy and sell over the Internet; and, in one measure which officials single out, shored up a state-run apprenticeship and job training program.
"That has been sort of out on its own, searching for its own funding," says Vivian Manuel, a Commerce Department spokesperson. "Now it's got its own money and it's there for good."
Summing up the project's legacy, Manuel echoes the theme sounded when Jobs and Income was introduced: that Montana must look far beyond its traditional economic mainstays to survive in the next century.
"All this stuff is just crucial for economic diversity," she says.
By SARAH SCHMID
Despite a Legis-lature flush with members who swear allegiance to the Republican agenda of less government spending, child and welfare advocates are celebrating a few major victories this session-chiefly, the passage of state-funded health insurance for the children of the working poor, and the elimination of a seven-dollar fee charged by the state to those on welfare collecting child support.
Wendy Young, a legislative liaison for Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, says Senate Bill 81, which called for subsidizing the Children's Health Insurance Plan, was one of the few things approved for full funding by the Legislature. The program will now also receive a federal matching grant.
Another long-time bone of contention between the Montana government and low-income families was the seven-dollar fee taken out of child support checks collected by those who are also on state assistance. The Legislature voted to eliminate that monetary burden from those on welfare and replace it with cash from the general fund.
Young believes the key to the passage of both pieces of legislation was the mobilization of activists in all districts, who urged constituents to repeatedly voice their support for both bills.
"It was great to watch such a groundswell of grassroots support," Young says. "There was nothing [the legislators] could do."
Contributing to the Legislature's generosity, no doubt, was the infusion of millions of dollars into the state's general fund, courtesy of the settlement of a massive lawsuit against tobacco companies.
"The good news is that we were one of the few states who got any money for preventing tobacco use," says Dennis Alexander, executive director of the American Lung Association of the Rocky Mountains. "The bad news is that three-quarters of the total settlement went into the general fund."
The ALA and other health organizations lobbied to spend most of the money on treatment for illnesses caused by smoking, as well as on cessation centers for those who wish to quit smoking and prevention efforts aimed at teenagers.
Alexander describes the $3.5 million annual sum that was approved for such programs as a "token amount," but he's happy to even get that much. He also predicts the battle over how to spend the tobacco settlement money is one that is ongoing.
"We want to show the people of Montana and the Legislature that we can start effective programs that warrant investing more money," he declares.
Not so lucky was Senate Bill 313, which called for the establishment of child support assurance, a plan that would enable the state to pay families delinquent child support payments instead of welfare. Surprisingly, SB 313 was defeated despite strong initial support.
"It was the only bill I saw get a standing ovation from the Health and Human Services Committee," Young explains. Part of the appeal of the program was its provision that participants work at least 12 hours a week to qualify, and that they would not be eligible for additional state payouts.
Despite its popularity, though, SB 313 died in the Senate. "It would have been great for working poor Montanans," Young asserts. "But I guess the Republican-controlled Appropria-tions Committee thought it was too radical."