With only two scheduled weeks remaining in the 65th Montana Legislature, and as whispers of an early adjournment echo through the halls of the Capitol, lawmakers were slated to return from a holiday break this week with a full agenda and plenty of work ahead of them.
State legislators left Helena after passing more than a dozen bills on April 13, tackling a flurry of issues that included raising production caps for small breweries and asking voters whether they wanted to limit who can collect ballots.
On April 18, the 80th legislative day of the 90-day session, they returned with a similarly stacked schedule, but two behemoth bills will soon eclipse the others — lawmakers must pass an infrastructure bill and a budget that will pass muster with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
The governor has already said the proposed budget, House Bill 2, needs work as he strives for a projected general fund ending-fund balance of about $300 million, while Republican leaders said they’re comfortable with an ending-fund balance of $200 million.
After being amended by the Senate, HB2 calls for $10 billion in total appropriations for the biennium, including $4 billion in general funds.
Meanwhile, an infrastructure bill that includes bonding to pay for state buildings on campuses in Bozeman, Billings and Great Falls has divided lawmakers once again.
Bullock’s infrastructure proposal, which was tabled, called for $157 million in bonding and funds the building projects, while Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, rolled out a $98 million package in SB367 that the governor has endorsed with lukewarm enthusiasm.
Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, introduced a rival bill that includes $78 million in bonding but has not managed to earn the needed two-thirds majority in the House.