Montanans are a special breed of Americans. They are fiercely independent and, in general, quite conservative. However, one thing that most folks from Montana have no patience for is when outsiders come into their state, run down their elected officials, and try to tell them how to vote. That’s exactly what the Koch brothers corporatist front group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) did in Montana over the issue of Medicaid expansion and the results are enough to warm the cockles of this liberal’s heart.
AFP decided to target a number of Republican state legislators in Montana, legislators who had previously voted in favor of Medicaid expansion. The Montana legislature, both houses of which are unsurprisingly controlled by Republicans, meets only every two years. The last time they met, AFP’s Deputy State Director Henry Kriegel spoke before the lawmaking body in opposition to Medicaid expansion. He used such arguments as “[B]ecause Medicaid is means tested, expanding Medicaid provides a disincentive for success”, that “young adults will be incentivized to poverty”, and that “research indicates that Medicaid results in poorer health care”. The latter argument has been proven to be completely false. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that having Medicaid is much better than being uninsured, Medicaid beneficiaries and the privately insured have comparable access to preventive and primary care, and that the Medicaid program, while not perfect, is highly effective.
The Montana legislature is currently in session and AFP set up a website going after those who had voted yes to Medicaid expansion in 2013. Then they began holding a series of “town hall meetings” in the districts of some of these lawmakers and the results were disastrous.
One of those legislators was Jeff Wellburn. When AFP came to his district, he was not only not invited, he wasn’t even given the courtesy of being informed. That didn’t stop him from attending, though. However, when he showed up, he was not allowed to speak at the public town hall in his own district and the crowd was NOT pleased. “How can we possibly have a town meeting on this issue but not hear from our legislator?” asked one participant. “If Jeff Wellborn walks, I walk,” said another as she and many others got up and left the meeting. The spectacle was caught on video which you can view HERE. (I didn’t embed it here because it is an autoplay video.)
Another legislator targeted was Frank Garner. Like Wellburn, Garner was not notified of the “town hall meeting” being held by AFP in his district. After learning about it from a reporter, he “drove 8 hours on winter roads through the Swan [Valley]” to crash their party. He asked the attendees to listen to what they had to say but to make up their own minds. “I support their right to have an opinion. I just didn’t like how they did it,” Garner told them. “They didn’t even extend the courtesy of telling me about the meeting. What does that say about their intentions?”
And then he slammed AFP with this: “I promised the people here when I ran that I would listen to you and not out-of-town special interests. If every time they want me to sign a pledge card and I don’t do it they are going to rent a room and have a meeting, then this is going to get real expensive. Cause I’m not signing the pledge card.” His declaration was received with noisy applause. According to the Great Falls Tribune, Garner’s appearance stopped AFP in its tracks:
Garner’s mere presence had a chilling effect on the AFP presentation, which was frequently derailed by laughter, booing and shouting from audience members who overwhelmingly expressed support for Garner.
Following a hasty exchange with AFP State Director Zach Lahn minutes before Thursday’s meeting commenced, Garner took the podium to defend his record before the crowd of mostly supporters, who cheered the lawmaker on.
As happened at the town hall in Wellburn’s district, the audience at this one was pissed:
“If the purpose is to make sure legislators know, then why am I the only one here? And why didn’t I get an invite?” Garner asked to more applause.
Any sense of order the meeting maintained at the beginning broke down toward its end, with audience members shouting questions and accusations, interrupting [AFP State Director Zach] Lahn and defending Garner.
“You have pissed me off,” one man told Lahn. “Character assassination does not go down well in Montana. If he has to take a pledge then I want it to be the Pledge of Allegiance, because they don’t represent you, they represent me.”
Referencing a quote by Henry David Thoreau on the sanctity of town hall meetings, Nathan Kosted told Lahn the gathering smacked of exclusivity.
“Why did you call this a town hall meeting? I didn’t get an invite. I wish I’d been invited, because I want to know how we get the Koch Brothers out of politics. I want to know how we get you out of politics,” Kosted said.
Despite this rebuke by the citizens of Montana, earlier this month it looked like the Koch brothers’ effort was paying off. The Healthy Montana Plan, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s Medicaid expansion legislation, was shot down by a House committee before it went to the full House. However, a new piece of legislation, Senate Bill 405, passed its first hurdle in the Senate on Friday with a bipartisan majority and may be voted on by the full Senate for final approval as early as today. From there it will go to the House and, if passed, will be signed into law by Gov. Bullock.
Good on Montanans for stepping up and speaking truth to corrupt attempts by corporatists to seize power in their state government. Medicaid expansion is good for the citizens of Montana who are too poor to afford healthcare but who make a bit too much to qualify for Medicaid under the current guidelines. Even Republicans are beginning to understand, at least the ones who aren’t beholden to corporate interests like the Koch brothers.
Oh, one more thing: Despite AFP’s characterization of Medicaid expansion as an “irresponsible plan for more spending, more debt and lower quality care”, they are more than happy to benefit from what they like to call “government handouts” themselves. As former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer pointed out in an op-ed last month, the billionaire brothers have received more than $12 million of state and federal subsidies from their cattle ranching operation:
The two Koch brothers are worth $88 billion — even more than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, according to Forbes Magazine. I have nothing against great wealth, and I still hope to get there. The Koch brothers inherited a great fortune and grew it through the years with hard work, old-fashion smarts and government subsidies — in part, ironically, near Dillon.
They have owned the 200,000-acre-plus Matador Ranch near Dillon for more than 50 years. Well, not really owned the ranch, because about one-third of the ranch is owned by the state of Montana, while the federal government owns around another third. The brothers rent the land from the state and the feds to graze their 2,000 head of cattle.
I am a rancher so I crunched the numbers. The Koch brothers have (received):
- A whopping Montana subsidy of $110,889 per year, times the 50 years of ownership, for a grand total of $5,544,450.
- A federal subsidy of $140,859 per year, times 50 years — a very generous $7,042,950.
Yup, the Koch brothers got some $12.5 million in government subsidies to pay 11 AFP staffers to intimidate and hoodwink the Montana Legislature into rejecting hundreds of millions of federal dollars annually for health care of 70,000 Montana residents, which would create thousands of Montana jobs, many at rural hospitals in areas represented by responsible Republican legislators.
So, there’s that hypocrisy. But, of course, hypocrisy has never gotten in the way of the David and Charles Koch making a profit, even if it that profit comes at the expense of taxpayers in the form of “government handouts”.