Montana Legislature: All sides declare partial victory in state budget solution

State legislators left Helena Thursday after meeting for a fast-paced, at time chaotic special session. (Stan Parker)

HELENA — Everyone was claiming at least a partial victory Thursday after the conclusion of a special legislative session called to close a $227 million state general fund budget and revenue shortfall.

The House adjourned at 1:04 a.m., after the Senate concluded at 12:36 a.m., to wrap up the two-day special session.

Depending on who’s doing the counting, the plan passed by lawmakers filled most, if not all of the budget gap and then some.

Rather than having to make $227 million in budget cuts and other measures, Governor Steve Bullock will have to make the $76 million in cuts he proposed when he called legislators into special session.

Bullock earlier identified where these cuts would be. The largest share will be $49.2 million from the Department of Public Health and Human Services, $4.5 million from the Department of Justice, $4.5 million from the Commissioner of Higher Education and $4.4 million from the Department of Corrections.

In addition, legislators approved $94 million in fund transfers, other cuts and other ways to come up with the money.  Bullock had proposed $75 in fund transfers.

The Legislature also backed Bullock’s plan to charge the workers’ compensation State Fund a management fee on certain funds invested by the state Board of Investments.  That will raise $30 million, but the State Fund and Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, who buys his work-comp insurance from the State Fund, questioned the move’s legality.

Through bill drafting techniques that link various bills together, Republicans believe they have likely forced Bullock to accept a $30 million payment from Core Civic, owner of a private prison in Shelby, in exchange for renewing the state’s contract with the corporation for another decade. If not, they believe Bullock may have to find additional budget cuts.

A number of Democratic legislators were highly critical of the prison and the corporation and don’t want to see the contract renewed.

Here are statements from Bullock and legislative leaders after the session adjourned:

“Tonight we reached a reasonable and responsible compromise to balance our budget and pay for Montana’s record fire season,” said Bullock. “While I’m disappointed we were not able to reach a full agreement, I would be remiss not to acknowledge all the progress made to minimize the impacts of severe budget cuts on the most vulnerable among us.”

Bullock added: “These aren’t just numbers on a balance sheet, these are real people. These are our friends, our families and our neighbors – our children, our grandchildren, our parents and grandparents. While we still have work to do, tonight Montanans can be pleased.”

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, told reporters when the session adjourned he was pleased that Republicans rejected tax increases proposed by Bullock and came up with other $230 million worth of options to close the budget gap.

“The Republican caucus was committed to not raising taxes on hardworking Montanans, and that’s what we’ve done over the last few months,” he said. “We have stayed united, strong as a Republican caucus, and frankly we’ve given the governor all the tools he needs now to fix it.”

Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said, “I think we exceeded expectations on our end. We had very little time to plan and to get everything done that was incorporated in that additional call was pretty impressive.”

Sales was pleased that no tax increases were approved. Bullock had proposed raising the current state taxes on accommodations and rental cars, but the bill didn’t pass.

“I’ve run six times for the Legislature, always on no new taxes and a little less government, so it was music to my ears.  I’m sure it wasn’t as optimal for the governor as it might have been,” Sales said.

In a statement, House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, said: “The solution before us is far from perfect, but it allows us to avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in unacceptable cuts that would hurt people across our state. I am disappointed that the Republican majority demanded cutting $76 million before they would even come to the negotiating table, and then left town without fixing the full budget shortfall.”

Eck said she’s extremely proud that Bullock and Democratic legislators “fought tirelessly” to protect more than $124 million for health care, public safety and education programs that Montanans depend upon.