The Montana Senate

The Montana Senate gathers during the 2019 legislative session.

The state Senate on Saturday again kicked the can down the road on legislation to continue Medicaid expansion in Montana, as a group of Republicans continues to use the bill as leverage for legislation important to them — including a proposal to "save" the Colstrip coal-fired power plant.

Earlier in the week the Senate on a 25-25 vote failed to move House Bill 658, which removes a summer expiration date on the program that extends Medicaid coverage to those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level and adds work requirements to the program.

Continuing expansion has been one of the biggest issues of this legislative session. The bill to do it is being carried by a Republican and has found support from Democrats and Republican members of the so-called Solutions caucus. It has already passed the House.

The bill has nine Republican co-sponsors in the Senate, in addition to all 20 Democrats who support it. But five of those Republicans voted against the bill earlier in the week.

Those Republicans have said Senate Bill 331, the so-called "Save Colstrip'' bill, is one of the things they want to see gather enough support to clear the House and be signed by the governor.

Senate Bill 331, which has always bound NorthWestern Energy customers to paying costs associated with the utility increasing its ownership in the four-unit coal-fired power plant, was heavily amended Friday to require state utility regulators to add it to customer rates and to determine what the customer burden will be. The bill also now returns power to the state Public Service Commission to review any agreement by NorthWestern to increase its ownership, and it no longer guarantees the utility can pass on the cost to ratepayers.

Sen. Tom Richmond, a Billings Republican, said Saturday the changes stripped his Colstrip bill of anything he hoped to accomplish. He expects it will end up in a conference committee where additional changes could be made.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, a Democrat from Butte, made a failed attempt to put the Medicaid expansion bill back on the Senate agenda Saturday.

His counterpart, Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, said members of his caucus still needed to get clarity on effects the expansion bill would have and wanted to get traction on other legislation important to them. 

In addition to the Colstrip bill, that GOP agenda includes Senate Bill 266 from Sen. Mark Blasdel, a Republican from Kalispell, to create an income tax credit to incentivize job growth.

Both the Medicaid expansion and Colstrip bills would need to clear the chamber they're in by Tuesday because of a transmittal deadline. But Thomas said rules could be changed or suspended if necessary.

"Important bills can be brought back to life," Thomas said.

Sesso said he hopes the vote on Medicaid expansion will come by Monday. He said the five Republicans who co-sponsor the bill but voted against it are telling him to "be patient" and "that they will be supportive and they will not let Medicaid expansion fail."

Bullock in a tweet Saturday called the delay a game of "Russian roulette" on the part of Republican senators.