Monday, June 29, 2009

Commissioner of Political Practices: Substantial evidence that Montanans In Action violated campaign finance laws

I’m still working on the full story for tomorrow’s Tribune, but here’s a sneak peak.

According Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth, there is “substantial evidence” that Montanans in Action violated the state’s campaign finance reporting and disclosure laws by refusing to disclose the source of the $1.2 million the group spent on three ballot initiatives in 2006.


Unsworth released the findings of his three-year investigation today.

You can read the full 105-page report here.

Butcher called Unsworth’s investigation and report “petty bureaucratic harassment.”

This is from a MIA press release sent out early this afternoon:

Trevis Butcher, director of Montana's in Action, today condemned a report filed by the Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth as "nothing more than a political payback vendetta for stepping on the toes of big government by supporting term limits on Montana politicians."

The three ballot initiatives MIA supported in 2006 were scrapped by a Great Falls District Court judge who ruled that out-of-state signature gatherers used fraud and deception to get the measures on the ballot.

All along opponents of the measures sought to find out who, exactly, was behind them. One initiative would have made it easier to recall judges. Another would have limited state spending. The third one would have changed the state’s “takings” laws.

Butcher’s opponents, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer, have long asserted that the funding source for MIA’s activities in2006 was Americans for Limited Government, a political group financed by New York real estate mogul and libertarian activist Howard Rich.

Unsworth’s report details connections between Rich’s Americans for Limited Government and Montanans in Action’s 2006 initiative campaign, but stops short of claiming that Rich or his organization directed the activities of MIA.

Unsworth said Butcher and ALG were uncooperative in his investigation. Unsworth draws this interesting conclusion from MIA and ALG’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation:

The 2006 tactics suggest that the proponents of CI-97, CI-98, and I-154 may be more interested in seeking to invalidate campaign reporting laws that require public disclosure of the true source of money used to finance express campaign speech.

Unsworth said his next step will be to take them to court and get a judge to compel Butcher to hand over more information.

Butcher told me today that he’s ready for that fight.

“I honestly see this as a witch hunt and we’re going to stand up to it. Our legal team is right now reviewing this, and we’ll obviously be prepared for whatever is ahead.”

You can read my full report in tomorrow’s Great Falls Tribune.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Stimulus Watch: "ERROR"

Gov. Brian Schweitzer unveiled the new Montana recovery Web site on Wednesday.

Let's just say it didn't exactly go off without a hitch. When I logged on to the Web site...well, the above screen shot should give you the picture.

I know, I know. The site is new and I'm sure the governor's staff are working furiously to work out the bugs, so let's cut them some slack.

However, I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it a bit amusing. Given the level of difficulty and complexity of trying to track the state's $1 billion+ in federal economic stimulus dollars, it's at least somewhat ironic that when I logged on to the state's stimulus tracking Web site, I found this message:
The server at is taking too long to respond.

In the interest of fairness, here's what Schweitzer says the new Web site will provide once it's up and running. From today's press release:

The updated website,, includes an interactive county map that allows users to click on their county for a breakdown of funding into eight categories and a state overview. All monthly agency reports are available on-line.

“We are going to track every dollar,” said Schweitzer. “Every time you see a recovery sign it means we are putting Montanans to work reinvesting in our economy, improving efficiency, increasing public safety, and making a cleaner, healthier Montana.”

The updated website also incorporates an energy home improvement tax calculator. Under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and state law homeowners are eligible for a $1,500 federal tax credit and a $500 state tax credit for home energy improvements.

“This is a great way for homeowners to see how much tax credits they can receive for home energy conservation improvements,” said Schweitzer. “It’s a win-win for homeowners – you receive a tax credit and see long-term saving in your energy costs.”

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Missoula blogger seeks Executive Director post for Montana Democratic Party

Matt Singer, a prominent Democratic blogger for Left in the West and CEO of the Missoula-based political group Forward Montana, is apparently vying for the post of executive director of the Montana Democratic Party.

Sources who were at a "meeting of progressive Democrats” in Missoula on Tuesday night told me that Singer showed up—on warm summer evening—donning cowboy boots and jeans and announced that he would seek the post. According to one source, “he looked just like Jon Tester or Brian Schweitzer" --wardrobe wise.

I wrote a profile of Singer a few years back when I was still at the Missoula Independent. (Back then he was donning pink bunny ears for a voter registration drive). The gist of the piece was that Singer, at the time a 24-year-old blogger and activist, was going places in Montana Democratic politics. His web-savvy approach to politics had landed him a job with then-U.S. Senate candidate Jon Tester early in Tester’s campaign.

“He’s one smart dude,” Tester said of Singer. “He’s very talented. I think what he’s accomplished using Internet as a vehicle for political action speaks for itself as far as success.”

Not longer after working for Tester, Singer and a handful of young Democrats from Missoula launched Forward Montana.

I hadn’t gone back and looked at that article in a while. When I did, I noticed this reader comment posted shortly after the article ran:

By Anony Moose 11-15-07

Be interesting to see if Forward Montana stays true to its progressive roots or is co-opted by Democratic party insiders. Will stay tuned.

Interesting indeed.

Right now there’s a battle waging within the Democratic Party over health care reform. Max Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Committee, making Montana one of the bloodiest battlegrounds. Groups like the Montana Human Rights Network, Montanans for Single-Payer and MEA-MFT (the state’s largest labor union), have been fiercely advocating for a single-payer, or Medicare-for-all solution to the health care crisis. But Baucus and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment want a “uniquely American” health care reform package that maintains the existing for-profit insurance industry. Baucus has taken a lot of flak from the left flank of his party for his refusal to consider single-payer. So much so that he felt compelled to respond in a recent Missoulian op-ed piece.

Singer is firmly backing Baucus in his approach to health care reform both behind the scenes and on his blog. For that, Singer is also taking heat from the left.

It’ll be interesting to see how the health care debate plays out and how liberals react to Singer if he does ascend to a top post in the state party.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

EPA declares public health emergency for Libby

The EPA on Wednesday declared a public health emergency in asbestos infested Libby. It’s the first such declaration in history. Theoretically, that means Libby should finally start to see serious federal aid for cleanup and health care for the thousands of people suffering from asbestos related diseases.

More than 200 people have already died in Libby (though some believe that number is actually much higher), and nearly 2,000 more people have been diagnosed with asbestos-related health conditions, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma (funny, my spell checker doesn’t recognize mesothelioma, despite the fact that the American Cancer Society estimates that “the age-adjusted incidence of pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma in the United States has been estimated at 14.2 per million per year).

You can read about the declaration in tomorrow’s Great Falls Tribune. In the meantime, you can download this audio recording (right click to download target) of today’s press conference with Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester along with EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Montana GOP set to elect new leaders

The Montana GOP’s Officers Convention kicks off in Helena today. Tomorrow delegates will elect a new chairman.

The candidates vying to  succeed interim party chair Liane Johnson

are Rick Breckenridge of Proctor and Will Deschamps of Missoula. According to the Associated Press, both candidates said the Republican Party has not done enough to win elections in Montana with Democrats holding all five statewide posts as well as both U.S. Senate seats.

Rick Breckenridge from Proctor is running to be state party chairman. He says he wants the Republican Party to refocus on the conservative message that led to a groundswell of involvement in tax day “tea parties.”

Will Deschamps of Missoula says Montana Republicans have been ineffective at coming together to deliver the core Republican message that he said plays well in the state.

As Montana Republicans prepare to choose the leader of their party, a recent USA Today poll found that most Americans don’t know who speaks for the Republican party.

A 52% majority of those surveyed couldn't come up with a name when asked to specify "the main person" who speaks for Republicans today. Of those who could, the top response was radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (13%), followed in order by former vice president Dick Cheney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Former president George W. Bush ranked fifth, at 3%. 

I suspect if a similar poll were conducted in Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg would probably top the list, however the Montana GOP isn’t immune from some of the problems plaguing the party nationally.

There’s a growing rift in the Montana GOP between hard-line conservatives and Ron Paul loyalists and moderate conservatives. Remember, it was just last year that former state Rep. Roger Koopman put together a political hit list of “14 socialist incumbent Republicans.” Of the 12 House members on the list, Bruce Malcolm of Emigrent, John Ward of Helena and Carol Lambert of Broadus, were defeated in the primary by more more socially conservative candidates who went on to win House seats in the general election. In the Senate, John Brueggeman of Polson was on the list but didn’t face a primary challenger, and Dave Lewis of Helena is up for reelection next year.

If Breckenridge’s support for Ron Paul is any indication, he is probably the more hard-line candidate for the party chairmanship.

Breckenridge is also touting the enthusiasm created by the Ron Paul supporters who got involved last year in an effort to carry the Montana primary for the former presidential candidate. He also will make a point to emphasize the anti-abortion portion of the party platform, alongside the key message of limited government.

"I think there is some fear of the enthusiasm that Dr. Paul has energized," he said. "But once we get everything working, I think the finger-pointing will stop."

Meanwhile Deschamps, a Missoula Republican, seems to be more focused on rebranding the state party and maintaining the GOP’s modest gains in the legislature.

Deschamps said raising money, winning legislative seats, re-electing Rehberg and better coordinating efforts would be priorities for him.
He noted victories for Montana Republicans last year, a very poor year nationally for the Republican brand.
Deschamps said the state re-elected Rehberg and gave the GOP control of the state Senate and a split in the House - one of just a handful of states where Republicans picked up state legislative seats.
There are areas that need to be improved, such as recruiting good candidates for tough races, he said.
"We have lost our way. We just need to find a different way of crafting our message so people listen to us," Deschamps said.

The Montana GOP has certainly struggled to secure big wins on the statewide level, but Deschamps raises a good point: Over the past two election cycles Montana was one of the only states in the nation where Republicans gained seats in the Legislature.

In 2006 Democrats gained 350 seats in about 6,000 races across the country, and took control of legislatures in 10 states. But that same year in Montana, Democrats were only able to gain control of the Legislature when life-long Republican Sen. Sam Kitzenberg of Glasgow switched party affiliation, giving Democrats control of the Senate.

Last year Republicans managed to take back the Senate, even as they lost all five statewide races from Governor to Secretary of State.

Some people in Helena talk about how the Montana GOP is “in shambles,” but they’ve had relatively decent success at the legislative level while the national party slips further into disarray. It’ll be interesting to see if the party changes direction under a new chairman.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"Leaner. Greener. Faster. Smarter."

"This is not about going out of business, this is about getting down to business."

That's from a recent TV ad for YOUR new General Motors. I say yours, because you and I are now the majority shareholders in GM. Here's the full ad:

This is kinda refreshing coming from the company that brought us the Hummer.

Sorry, I can't resist:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Difference Makers - The National Hummer Club
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorStephen Colbert in Iraq

Don't get me wrong, I hope GM--and the rest of the nation's automakers--have finally turned a corner, but why did it take a total financial collapse and a massive government buyout before GM decided it was time to innovate beyond "bigger, badder and bolder" to "leaner, greener, smarter?"

Perhaps if they'd gone down that road a decade ago they, and we, wouldn't be in this mess. Better late then never I suppose.

This week in health care reform

Single-payer gets a hearing

Tomorrow morning the House Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., is holding a hearing to examine the single-payer health care option.

Single-payer advocates across the country are thrilled, because tomorrow’s hearing marks the first time Congress has opened the door and invited them to officially take part in the health care reform discussion.

Anyone who has followed this raging debate over the past couple months knows that Montana’s Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has thus far refused to consider single-payer or even let single-payer advocates take part in Senate hearings.

Last month Baucus had 13 protesters arrested for disrupting two committee hearings and demanding that Baucus include single-payer in the discussion.

That incident, and Baucus' refusal to include single-payer, sparked protests across Montana last week:

Are Baucus and Obama parting ways on the "public option"?

In a letter sent to Baucus and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy last week, Obama said he wants any bill that reaches his desk to include a strong public option. Baucus has previously said he supports the idea of a public option, in which the federal government would manage a health insurance plan that would compete alongside private insurance companies. But Baucus has also insisted that any bill that makes it out of the Senate Finance Committee has to be a "bi-partisan" bill. So far, conservatives in Congress are lining up to oppose that idea.

Now, according to this New York Times interview with Baucus and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the finance committee, Baucus appears to be backing off his support of a public plan. Here's what he had to say about it (it's at the 6:20 mark in the video):

"Now some suggest that maybe this so-called public option is necessary to keep insurance companies feet to the fire. That's an argument that we hear around here. My point is that there is less need for that...if we really do a good job reforming the health insurance industry."

Less need for public option? Is that Obama's position? Baucus should know what's on Obama's mind, because after all Baucus’ former chief of staff, Jim Messina, is now Obama's deputy chief of staff. And as New York Times Magazine Washington correspondent Matt Bai pointed out on the News Hour last night, the relationship between Baucus, Messina and Obama is not “incidental," especially when it comes to health care reform.

“Jim Messina is the deputy chief of staff in the White House. He's also not just a former chief of staff for Senator Baucus. Senator Baucus at one point has said this is like another son to him.

And so that's been, I think, critical, because, you know, the president and Senator Baucus do not have a strong relationship. They didn't know each other well in the Senate. But they've put a lot of effort into building that relationship in the last couple months, and a key part of that is him being able to call his former confidante and either vent, or get something across, or hear what's being thought on the other side.”

So is Baucus now indicating a split with the president, or is Obama feigning support for a public plan?

What happened to support for single-payer?

At one time, Obama was a "proponent of a single-payer universal health care program." At least that's what he told the crowd at a 2003 AFL-CIO convention when he was running for the U.S. Senate:

If you watch the video all the way through, you'll note that Obama tells the crowd that "we may not get there immediately, because first we have to take back the White House, and we've got to take back the Senate."

White House: Check.
Senate: Check.
Congress: Check.

So why is Obama, via Max Baucus, now running from an idea he once supported? Democrats control Washington, and if Al Franken is declared in the winner in the still-as-yet-to-be-decided Minnesota Senate Race, Obama—along with the help of two Democrat-leaning independents—will have a veto-proof majority in the Senate.

Hypothetically, if Congress were to somehow pass a single-payer bill, does anyone believe that Obama wouldn't sign it? I highly doubt that Obama would use his veto pen for the first time on a piece of legislation that he has vocally supported in the past, and one that, if you believe the polls (and here, and here, and here), is supported by the majority of Americans.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"We really can't say we're the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore."

That’s the message from Brenda Pierce, head of the U.S. Geological Survey team that found that the U.S. coal reserves are probably about half of what they were previously thought to be.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer likes to use that phrase when talking about Montana's vast coal reserves, such as in this 2007 Time magazine piece:

"Now here's how Montana is going to save the world," [Schweitzer] proclaimed at one point. "We are the Saudi Arabia of coal," he said...

But is that characterization of Montana's--and the nation's--coal reserves accurate? Not according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal (you have to be a subscriber to read the full article).

Basically, here’s the gist:

George Warholic calculates America's vast coal reserves the same way his predecessors have for decades: He looks up the prior year's coal-reserve estimate, subtracts the year's nationwide production and arrives at a new official tally.

Coal provides nearly one-quarter of the total energy consumed in the U.S., and by Mr. Warholic's estimate, the country has enough in the ground to last about 240 years. A belief in this nearly boundless supply has led officials to dub the U.S. the "Saudi Arabia of Coal."

But the estimate, recent findings show, may be wildly overconfident.

While there is almost certainly as much coal in the ground as Mr. Warholic's Energy Information Administration believes, relatively little of it can be profitably extracted. Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey completed an extensive analysis of Wyoming's Gillette coal field, the nation's largest and most productive, and determined that less than 6% of the coal in its biggest beds could be mined profitably, even at prices higher than today's.

"We really can't say we're the Saudi Arabia of coal anymore," says Brenda Pierce, head of the USGS team that conducted the study.

According to scientists, carbon dioxide emitted from coal-fired power plants is the leading contributor to global climate change. (A sobering note on that point: A new study by the USGS found Antarctica’s ice shelves are disappearing faster than previously thought.) That’s why lawmakers in Washington are busy working on new federal carbon legislation. Congress is likely to pass cap and trade legislation in the next year or so, and that in turn is likely to increase the cost of coal production and consumption even more.

Coal’s future seems to be getting darker by the day.

On the upside, as coal becomes more expensive to burn, Montana could end up faring better than other coal-producing states because we have another abundant source of energy in Big Sky Country: wind.

According to National Wind, “America's leading large-scale community wind project developer,” over two thirds of Montana has excellent wind resources for the development of utility scale wind projects.

Perhaps in the future Montana will be dubbed "the Saudi Arabia of wind."Oooh....I should trademark that. Shoot. It looks like T. Boone Pickens already beat me to the punch.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Singler-payer advocates rally in Montana

Single-payer advocates held rallies in front of Sen. Max Baucus' field offices around the state on Friday. At the Helena event, protesters chanted "Hey hey, hey ho, health care's a right that's worth a fight," among other clever ditties, as they held signs criticizing Bacaus' refusal to include single-payer in the national health care reform debate. Labor leaders and human rights groups said Baucus will ignore single-payer at his own political peril. More on the Friday's protests in Saturday's dead-tree edition of the Tribune.

Stimulus Watch: Tracking the flow of recovery dollars

According to Sen. Jon Tester’s office, Montana is slated to receive $1,183,051,407.76 in federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Add in the additional $575,713,000 in estimated federal tax relief, and Montana’s share of the tax-payer funded economic stimuli comes to around $1.8 billion.

Keeping track of that money is no easy task, despite lawmakers’ promises of transparency. I’ve spent weeks combing state and federal agencies’ Web sites, talking to lawmakers and their staffers, and re-reading dozens of press releases and news stories announcing the approval of various monies for various projects.

I think we’ll be putting those pieces together for a long time before a clear picture begins to form from this stimulus puzzle.

Here’s what I have figured out so far.

About $666 million of the $1.2 billion that will be spent in Montana goes to state programs and projects. Those funds had to be accepted and appropriated by the Montana Legislature, which it did when it passed House Bill 645. Gov. Brian Schweitzer signed that key piece of legislation into law on May 14. At that point, the state agencies could get to work on the plumbing that would be used to distribute the funds.

The remaining $517 million in ARRA funds get funneled through federal agencies such as the Forest Service, for things like fire prevention and road restoration, or the Department of the Interior, for thing like improving the national parks and water projects.

I spent hours examining spreadsheets, charts table and graphs on government Web sites and I talked to about a dozen state and local officials just trying to figure out how the stimulus package is actually supposed to function. As I did so, an analogy began to develop.

The recovery act is like a system of pipes and reservoirs that transfers the money—or water in this model—to “shovel ready projects” and various social safety nets. The federal treasury is the enourmous water tower that sits up on the hill. When Barack Obama signed the $787 billion program into law on Feb. 17, the money—or water in this model—began flowing out of that tower through massive pipelines and into states.

In Montana, much of the plumbing through which the stimulus funds will eventually flow was in place long before the ARRA. Many state agencies are already equipped to receive and spend federal dollars and do so all the time for things like food stamps and highway construction.

Sometimes the money flows to the state coffers first. Those dollars then need to be appropriated by the Legislature. Other times it flows directly to the state agencies, but the Legislature has to give those agencies the authority to turn the valve on and spend the money.

In Montana, the Legislature has sole authority to appropriate money. So even though Obama authorized millions of dollars to flow the state’s way, most of that money couldn’t be tapped until the Legislature passed bills implementing the spending.

So, in Montana, a large volume of the $666 million filled up a big reservoir: the state coffers. From there lawmakers in Helena were charged with the task of constructing smaller pipelines into various state agencies (HB 645). Some of the money went to the Department of Public Health and Human Services for things like shoring up Medicaid and unemployment benefits. Some went to education for improving schools and ensuring children with disabilities have access to quality public education, etc.

Simple, right?

Long story short, the water—or money—has to travel through a vast network of pipes and reservoirs built by an untold number of plumbers before it finally comes out the spigot in the form of new roads, school renovations, or home weatherization, etc.

Next week in the Tribune I’ll begin what I’m sure will end up begin the months-long, if not years-long, task of trying to track how the federal stimulus dollars are flowing in Montana.Think of me as a plumbing inspector.

How much money has actually been spent, and on what? Are new jobs being created? Who’s keeping track of the money and ensuring that it’s being spent wisely? What are lawmakers doing to fulfill the promise of transparency? In short, is the stimulus working in Big Sky Country?

I’m not promising to all of those questions in a week's time, but I’ll begin working on them by taking at look at one specific highway project in order to try to explain to readers how the ARRA money got to Montana, and how it’s being put to use.

In the meantime, here are a few links to recovery Web sites if you want to try your own hand and following the money:



Federal by agency

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sad night in Helena

As I write this, a helicopter is hovering above my house in search of a suspect involved in a shooting that left two people injured and one person dead.

A friend and I were just sitting down at the picnic table in my back yard for some evening beverages and lively political discourse when we heard the gunshots. We both thought it sounded like kids having fun with some pre-4th of July fireworks. It never crossed our minds that it might actually be gun play. A few minutes later the sirens started. Moments later, we saw at least a half dozen police cars racing through my neighborhood. Then came the ambulances. We watched the entire aftermath unfold from about a quarter mile away.

According to the Helena Independent Record, "one person is dead, and two people are injured, in a shooting involving at least four juvenile males late this evening."

We heard those gunshots. It sounded like at least 20 of them. We thought they were a round of Black Cats or something. Because, you know, this is Helena Montana. People don't shoot each other in Helena Montana.

Even after the gunshots--and the nearly two hours of extraordinary police activity on the hill across the gulch from my back yard that followed--I never assumed anything terribly serious had happened. I actually said to my friend, "I bet one of those kids didn't toss the M-80 in time." Maybe an accident. Maybe even a horrible accident. But a shooting? Two people injured and one dead? The thought never crossed mind. Not for a second. Not here.

It wasn't until after I was running through the open land behind my house in search of my disobedient dog who'd run off that I realized something was going on. That's when I saw the patrol cars slowly cruising my neighborhood, shining their blazing spotlights into my and my neighbors' yards. That's when I knew something serious had happened.

update: to answer a reader's question, yes, my dog returned from her late-night stroll a minute later.

The irony for me is that my friend and I, both of us having (relatively) recently moved to Helena from Missoula, had earlier been talking about how safe this town is compared to other places we had lived. "Ha" we said, "We'll find out what happened up on the hill this weekend when we read the Helena crime map in the paper!" Yuk, yuk, yuk. Hell, it was just a day or two ago that I was laughing with some friends about the the fact that I all-too-often forget to lock my car door at night. "And I leave my iPod and wallet on the front seat!" I said. Yuk, yuk, yuk.

"The Helena Police Department issued a reverse 911 call to all residents in the area warning them to remain inside and lock their doors," the IR reported.

Because, you know, this is Helena. Some of us are pretty lax about locking our doors most nights.

That helicopter is still hovering above my house, and as long as I hear those blades chopping at the night sky and the sirens running in the the distance I'm going to wonder what the hell is going on. And yeah, I did lock my doors tonight.

But I still plan to walk to work tomorrow. And then I might walk to the coffee shop for my mid-morning espresso fix. After work I'll probably stroll down to the brewery for a pint and say 'hi' to my friends and neighbors. This weekend I'm sure I'll stop down at the farmers market to buy some more starts for my garden. If I get the back wheel fixed on my bike, I might just take a ride up the same gulch that helicopter keeps circling tonight.

Because this is Helena, and that's what we do.

When the events of this evening--which will undoubtedly be headlines for days to come--are over, Helena will go back to being Helena. And Helena, like all of Montana, is still a safe and great place to live.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Advocates: Baucus regrets decision to take single-payer off the table

Sen. Max Baucus on Wednesday told a group of single-payer advocates that he regrets not including them in earlier Senate discussions, according to sources who participated in closed-door meeting.

“He did admit that coming out right away and saying single-payer was off the table and not going to be a part of the discussion was a mistake,” said Geri Jenkins, president of the California Nurses Association and one of five single-payer advocates who participated in meeting.

Proponents of single-payer health care—a system in which the federal government provides health insurance for all Americans—have been hounding Baucus, a Democrat, for months after Baucus declared the idea “off the table.”

According to two people who participated in Wednesday’s meeting, Baucus said it’s too late for the Senate Finance Committee, which Baucus chairs, to hold additional health care reform hearings on single-payer.

Baucus’ office would not comment on the specifics of the meeting.

“Senator Baucus met privately with single payer advocates today and discussed their shared goals of providing quality, affordable health care to every American,” Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf said in an e-mail statement Wednesday afternoon. “Senator Baucus asked them to work together with him to pursue that goal this year.”

Officials with the group Montanans for Single-Payer said they plan to hold rallies at noon on Friday in front of Baucus’ field offices in Great Falls, Helena, Billings, Butte, Bozeman and Missoula.

Read the full story in tomorrow's Great Falls Tribune.

Baucus meeting with single-payer advocates

As I write this, a group of prominent single-payer advocates are meeting with Sen. Max Baucus to try to convince him to put single-payer on the table.

However, Clark Newhall, a Salt Lake City attorney, doctor and single-payer crusader, beat them to the punch this morning. Newhall was one of the first people in the country to publicly question Baucus on his affirmed stance that single-payer is off the table (here's the video). This morning Newhall attended Baucus' public breakfast in Washington, D.C. and challenged the Senate Finance Committee chairman on his position. Newhall sent me this e-mail immediately following the meeting (the embedded linke is mine):

Washington DC -- June 3 -- 8:30 a.m.

I just spoke with Max Baucus at length about single payer. More accurately, I listened to his views and tried to challenge them. Based on that conversation, I predict the following will happen today at the meeting that Marcia Angell, David Himmelstein, Oliver Fein, Geri Jenkins and RoseAnn DeMoro are having with him.

1 -- he will say what a candid and honest guy he is.

2 -- he will say that N-O-B-O-D-Y will vote for single payer in the Senate.

3 -- he will say that N-O-B-O-D-Y has a single payer bill in the Senate; he will not acknowledge SB 703.

4 -- he will say that the "60% of physicians want single payer"
statistic is false.

5 -- he will say that the American people do not want single payer.

6 -- he will say he knows the American people don't want single payer because politicians have a nose for what their constituencies want, mainly because most politicians want to get re-elected.

7 -- he will get nervous if anyone mentions the overwhelming support for single payer that the recent 'listening tour' in Montana revealed.

8 -- he will say that Americans are used to having employer-paid health insurance, and do not want to change.

9 -- he will deny that Medicare is 'uniquely American' and will shy away from using that phrase.

10 -- he will admit that the power of insurance companies has something to do with how the legislation is being shaped in the Senate but, when pressed on that, will reverse position.

11 -- he will rely heavily for his position on the proposition that Obama does not want single payer, and he may point to the recent flat statement of Obama to Sherrod Brown that single payer is off the table.

12 -- he will be obdurately and obstinately close-minded to facts, arguments and moral suasion.

13 -- he will act very involved and interested when the talk turns to 'paying for this' but will deny that single payer pays for itself.

14 -- he will give the impression that removing employer tax breaks for health insurance in some fashion is likely.

Those are my predictions. Let's see how close to the mark they are.

Newhall said he personally spent nearly $60,000 producing and running a series of television and internet ads –which are currently running on CNN, MSNBC, Comedy Central, The Game Show Network and other cable networks—promoting single payer. You can see the ads here. Newhall said those ads have generated more than 67,000 faxes to members of Congress.

“I’ve also collected something like 4,000 voice mails, transcribed them all, sent them off to Baucus and Obama. I just hand delivered about 2,000 of them this morning to Baucus,” Newhall said this morning.

I asked him if he thought any of it was getting through.

“F*** no,” Newhall said.

I’ll be following up on today’s meeting between Baucus and single-payer advocates later today. I’ll let you know if Newhall’s predictions came true.

On a related note:

Eight-one percent of respondents to an unscientific poll currently up on the Missoulian's Web site say single-payer should be included among the options for health care reform. In a similar unscientific poll in the Tribune two weeks ago (no link to the poll results, but here's the forum), 57 percent of respondents said single-payer should be considered.