Members of Yellowstone County’s two economic development agencies voted to endorse two of the three initiatives on Montana’s general election ballot in November. Big Sky Economic Development Authority (EDA) is a county agency that promotes economic development and its sister organization Big Sky Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is a private non-profit that is administrated by EDA.
The vote at the monthly joint board meeting reaffirmed an earlier vote supporting I-185 which imposes a tax on tobacco products to continue the Medicaid Expansion program in Montana called HELP (Montana Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership).
They also voted in support of the six mill property tax levy for higher education, which is an existing tax that must be re-approved by voters every ten years.
The votes were unanimous except for County Commissioner Denis Pitman who serves as an ad hoc representative on the EDA board. He abstained because, he said, as a county commissioner they are to take no stands on political initiatives.
Pitman questioned the appropriateness of EDA taking a position on political issues, since it is a tax funded entity. EDA Director Steve Arveschoug said that their legal counsel advised that the board can take positions but cannot spend public funds to advocate. “We won’t be spending public resources,” Arveschoug said.
The vote f0llowed presentations by proponents of the two initiatives including Steve Loveless, CEO of St. Vincent’s Health Care and Jon Felton Director of RiverStone Health, (city-county health department).
They emphasized the risks of using tobacco products saying that anything that could reduce its use is a positive thing, in part because of the potential removal of public burden of paying for the health care costs of tobacco users – estimated at $440 million in Montana.
Those who smoke tend to be lower income people who do not have health care coverage. In Yellowstone County one in five individuals use tobacco, they said.
There was significant discussion about I-185 with one board member saying his primary concern was imposing a tax on a single group of people.
It was noted that has been the concern of the Montana Chamber of Commerce as well.
Loveless addressed issues raised by opponents who claim that the measure is unconstitutional because it appropriates funds, an authority reserved to the Montana State Legislature by the Constitution. He said that they expect to be challenged in the courts if the initiative passes, but believes they will prevail. The initiative directs the tax revenues collected to go into the general fund and recommends that the legislature appropriate the funds in support of the program.
Arveschoug prepared a statement as requested by the board outlining the reasons for their support of I-185 which states in part that BSED “believes that the expansion of Medicaid supports healthcare delivery in both urban rural communities throughout Montana, helps to sustain our robust, growing healthcare infrastructure and workforce, and provides a significant impact to our local and state-wide economy.”
It notes that in Yellowstone County the healthcare industry employs over 20 percent of the workforce and contributes approximately $2.5 billion to the local economic base. It further states, “BSED would also encourage Montana policymakers to thoughtfully consider all options that would achieve the appropriate funding for the Medicaid expansion program.”