Bullock's $10.3B budget plan would extend Medicaid expansion

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday proposed a two-year, $10.3 billion budget that includes the reauthorization of a health insurance program for low-income residents and tax hikes that Republican legislative leaders are already dismissing as "not going to happen."

It's the Democratic governor's final budget proposal before his second term ends in 2021. He is seeking to push through priorities that lawmakers have rejected or scaled back in the past, including preschool education and infrastructure funding, while continuing the Medicaid expansion program that insures 96,000 low-income residents and is scheduled to expire next year.

Bullock proposes raising an additional $50 million a year through tax increases on hotel rooms, rental cars, tobacco and liquor and increasing a fee charged to investment advisers to help pay for programs.

Similar proposed hikes were rejected by the tax-averse Republican-led Legislature during the 2017 regular session and during last November's special session to shore up a projected deficit.

Republicans will control the Legislature again when the session convenes in January, and GOP leaders are already pushing back on the governor's proposals. They noted in a news conference Thursday that voters last week rejected an initiative that called for increasing tobacco taxes to help pay for Medicaid expansion.

"We as Republicans don't really see the need to raise taxes. We want to live within our means," said Senate President Scott Sales of Bozeman.

If the governor's budget "comes down to 'we need to have those taxes to pay for Medicaid expansion,' then the answer is 'it's not gonna happen,' " Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, added.

Sales and Thomas argued the state's economy is stronger than it was two years ago. Montana's increasing revenues means the state has enough money to cover its budgetary needs, they said.

Bullock said his budget includes reasonable investments in education, health care and rural communities, creating jobs and paying for infrastructure projects.

"Our state should be making fiscally prudent, sustainable investments that will benefit Montanans for generations to come, long beyond the time that any of us currently in public service will hold these positions of public trust," Bullock said.

Bullock's budget would spend $30 million on early childhood education, freeze university system tuition and spend $292 million on infrastructure projects while leaving a $300 million ending balance.

Bullock said he doesn't look at voters' rejection of Initiative 185 as a rejection of Medicaid expansion. The governor said he doesn't believe anybody wants to reverse the gains made since the program was passed in 2015.

Medicaid expansion is expected to be one of the top issues during the 2019 session, which starts on Jan. 7.

The Montana program requires recipients to pay premiums and co-payments, something that other states are looking at, Bullock said. Sales and Thomas said if any new Medicaid expansion program were to be approved they would want to look at work requirements, new tests for eligibility and possibly drug testing.

Bullock said he was willing to work with Republicans on potential changes, but "not if it's to penalize working folks."

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