HELENA — The Montana House endorsed the Senate’s changes to the 2018-2019 state budget on Thursday, leaving one more floor vote before the $10.3 billion spending plan goes to Gov. Steve Bullock.
The imminent passage of the two-year budget bill means attention will soon turn to the last major pieces of legislation, including a disputed infrastructure bill, as the session draws to a close.
Passing a balanced budget it the one constitutional obligation of the Legislature, and it has been the main focus of this session.
The Republican-led Legislature initially proposed major spending cuts to make up a shortfall left by a drop in revenues due to the energy industry’s downturn, but that pressure eased somewhat with the release of a more optimistic revenue forecast earlier this month.
As a result, the Senate added about $19 million to the budget the House had previously passed.
Still, the budget that will go to the Democratic governor makes cuts across most state agencies.
“This is the tightest budget I’ve seen in four sessions,” said Republican House Speaker Austin Knudsen, of Culbertson.
Democratic lawmakers contend the budget cuts higher education too deeply, and it shifts public school costs that had been paid for by the state to property taxpayers.
House Minority Leader Jenny Eck said the Republican majority’s decision to reject tax increases on the wealthy and out-of-state corporations was unfair to the rest of the state’s population.
“When we don’t make those hard choices, it’s the working folks who pay,” the Helena Democrat said.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Nancy Ballance, a Republican from Hamilton, responded with a swipe at Eck, who is sponsoring a bill that would raise the state’s hotel tax to pay for a new Montana Historical Society museum and heritage center.
“Let’s talk about whether it’s fair to increase taxes, and not spend that on essential services but on a new museum in Helena,” Ballance said.
The vote was 60-40, with Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy of Box Elder the only Democrat joining the Republican majority in approving the bill.
A companion bill to the budget includes tax and fee increases that would go to the state Department of Justice’s Motor Vehicle Division, and free up more money for road and bridge projects.
They include increases to vehicle registration fees and a new “Ferrari tax” that would charge a higher tax on vehicles, including recreational vehicles, worth more than $150,000.
Some Republican lawmakers questioned those tax increases.
“It seems like we’re taxing the rich, which is not a Republican philosophy,” said Republican Rep. Theresa Manzella, of Hamilton.
The amount of the increases is likely to be lowered in the session’s final days, Knudsen said in asking Republicans to vote for the companion bill before the floor session.
“I’m not going to twist anybody’s arms and tell you it’s a great bill,” Knudsen said. “I’m going to tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to hold my nose and vote for it.”
The companion bill, one of five being considered, passed 72-28.
Bullock was noncommittal about his plans to sign the budget, saying he will wait to assess the entire package of bills once they arrive on his desk.
“Some of my concerns about the budget certainly remain,” Bullock said. “I think we’ve been having constructive conversations with Democrats and Republicans to try to say how do we get out of here with a budget that funds essential services, doesn’t spend more than it brings in and leaves me a degree of flexibility so I’m not picking up the pieces and calling them back into session.”