HELENA — The state Supreme Court on Wednesday denied an attempt to block state officials from approving petitions for an initiative prohibiting Montana from using funds or staff to administer the Affordable Care Act and forbidding the state from expanding Medicaid.
The court, in a 5-0 ruling, rejected an attempt by Travis Hoffman, of Missoula; Melissa Smylie, of Great Falls; and Kim Abbott, of Helena, to disqualify Initiative 171 and prevent it from being circulated for signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
Hoffmann is on Medicaid, while Smylie is on Medicaid and her child is on the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Abbott is leader of the Healthy Montana initiative.
Medicaid is the state-federal program that pays the medical bills for the poor.
Those challenging I-171 had contended it was “legally insufficient” and unconstitutional for a number of reasons. In a filing last month, they asked that the court stop I-171 from being distributed for signatures.
The court ruled otherwise.
“We conclude that none of these constitutional claims meets the definition of a legal deficiency within the scope of the attorney general’s authority on review of a proposed ballot measure,” Justice Beth Baker wrote for the court.
She said the attorney general’s ballot statements meet the requirements of state law.
“Given the complexity of the ACA and the impact of its nonenforcement in Montana, the attorney general’s statement captures its purpose, implication and fiscal impacts in summary fashion and is sufficient to inform the voters of the implication of a vote for or against the measure,” Baker wrote.
In response, Michael Monforton, the Bozeman attorney who wrote and submitted I-171, said, “I am pleased that we will be able to move forward with our efforts to save Montana taxpayers from having to pay for the implementation and enforcement of Obamacare in Montana.”
Initiative 170 expands Montana’s Medicaid program by increasing eligibility for the program according to federal health care law. I-170 creates a special revenue account to accept federal funds and establishes an advisory committee, contingent upon the Legislature appropriating funding for the expansion.
Abbott, leader of the group behind I-170, said, “We’re committed to challenging I-171 in every avenue we have. It’s a dangerous policy because it would eliminate our CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) policy and our Medicaid plan, costing thousands of Montanans the health care they depend on.”
In other litigation, Monforton filed a lawsuit challenging what he called the “false fiscal statement” in I-170, the pro-Medicaid expansion measure. Monforton said he sent the legal papers to the Supreme Court Tuesday, but as of late Wednesday, they had not yet showed up on the court’s electronic register.
He represented a group at Montana State University known as If You Like Your MSU Funding, You Can Keep It; Kathy Hollenback, an MSU employee and Bozeman Democrat running for the Legislature; Ed Johnson, an MSU student running for the Legislature as a Republican; and Kyndall Miller, an MSU student.
This lawsuit contends that the fiscal statement for I-170, prepared by Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget office, falsely says that the initiative would save Montana money in fiscal 2017.
Monforton said the office reached this conclusion by including anticipated increase in the Children’s Health Insurance Program to Montana from the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program.
However, he said Montana stands to receive these payments of more than $100 million regardless of whether I-170 passes.
As a result, properly excluding this $100 million in CHIP money from the fiscal statement shows that I-170 would cost, rather than save Montana money, Monforton said.
“The Bullock administration needs to come clean with how much the Obamacare Medicaid expansion will really cost Montana, and that is what our lawsuit against I-170 is designed to do,” Monforton said.
The administration asked the Supreme Court to order Attorney General Tim Fox to revise the fiscal statement for I-170 and to issue an order voiding all I-170 petition forms containing the defective fiscal statements.
In response, Abbott said the governor’s budget office has already approved the fiscal impact statement for I-170.
“We have a fiscal impact statement,” Abbot said. “We went through the statutory process. We have an approved petition and we are out gathering signatures. We are excited to be out talking to voters about getting 70,000 Montanans the health care they need.”
To qualify for the ballot, either I-170 or I-171 requires signatures at least 24,175 registered voters, including at least 5 percent of the voters in 34 of the 100 state House districts.