Montana Viewpoint


April 28, 2003

At 7:15 last Saturday, the Montana Legislature ended the 2003 session. I’d like to bring you, the folks I work for, up to date on what I accomplished. Two issues high on my list this session were prohibiting insurance companies from using customers credit ratings as criteria for setting their rates, and to make prescription drugs less expensive for seniors and other. Lose one, win one.

The win was passing a bill that will give senior citizens and disabled people a discount on the cost of their prescription drugs. I wanted to extend that discount to all Montanans, but we figured a more modest program would have a better chance of approval. It was an extremely hard-fought battle, but the bill now sits on the Governor’s desk waiting her promised signature. The program’s called “Healthy Montana.”

It was, indeed, a struggle to get the bill passed, but I couldn’t have asked for more support and help. The AARP asked me if they could work on the bill with me, and boy, did they ever put out an effort. They did tons of research, consulted with experts, and lobbied legislators to vote for it. I was also great to have Representative Don Roberts, R-Billings, as my cosponsor in the House. Don’s an oral surgeon and did a heckuva job, but it wasn’t easy.

Common sense should tell us that no one would be against drug price discounts, but we’d be dead wrong. First, there was a competing bill by Senator Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, which provided some benefits, but not enough to suit AARP. It also took $7.5 million annual funding from the Tobacco Trust Fund which was created by public vote at the last election (Healthy Montana takes $32,800 for one-time start-up costs). Thomas used his leadership power to tenaciously oppose our bill. Even when it was on the Governor’s desk, Thomas went so far as to ask her to replace the proposal in our bill with his. She refused.

The long and short of it is, after a lot of cliffhangers, the bill passed overwhelmingly, and the program should be up and running by July, 2004. The delay is because of the time needed to get permission from the federal government to use the program. Folks over 62 and disabled people over 18 will be eligible to participate if the meet some pretty relaxed income standards and have no other drug insurance coverage. The average discount will be around 18% of the drug price.

The bad news was the legislature’s unwillingness to deny auto insurance companies the use of folks’ credit ratings to set premiums or even to deny coverage. Lots of seniors don’t have credit ratings because they pay cash for everything, and some people have bad credit ratings because of mistakes in their credit history documentation.

Many feel, me included, that a person’s driving history is the only thing that should be looked at by auto insurance companies. There were three bills introduced to restrict the practice. I supported all of them, but the insurance industry used their powerful lobby to get them all killed.

I had the honor of carrying legislation affecting our service veterans, but met with mixed success. A bill to provide college tuition to combat veterans of the war on terror was rejected by the Senate Finance Committee because of the cost. Another bill, which was suggested by Col. Joe Goldes (USA-retired) of Helena, will make Montana’s interstate highway system a part of the national Purple Heart Trail. Signs will be erected along these highways honoring our service veterans wounded in the line of duty. It’s a fitting tribute, and I am very proud to have been a part of making it happen.

In general, I opposed new taxes on Montanans, and proposed instead legislation that would have put some of the tax burden back on businesses with assets over one billion dollars. I also opposed the Governor’s large and inappropriate income tax cut; not because it wouldn’t be good to do, but because it is entirely inappropriate to cut taxes when we are in a deep budget crisis. I lost on both counts.

If you want to get in touch with me—and dont be shy, I work for you—I’ll be at home in Trout Creek. My phone number’s 827-3671, and my address is 100 TC Road, Trout Creek, 59874.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620