Impressions of the Session: 2009

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – At a relatively sparsely attended meeting of the House Education Committee Wednesday night, Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s funding plan for K-12 education deadlocked, 8-8, along party line votes, with Republicans opposed. House Bill 15 is sponsored by Rep. Dan Villa, D-Anaconda, and when he heard about the vote – which doesn’t kill the bill but keeps it in a kind of legislative limbo – he didn’t stick around to talk to me, instead walking hurriedly off down the hallway with his cell phone pressed to his ear.

Earlier in the day, a bill to fund a voter-approved initiative that would expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program to an additional 30,000 kids in Montana deadlocked in the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services on a 4-4 party-line vote, with Republicans opposed.

The CHIP bill would cost the state $20 million annually, though voters approved it by about a 70 percent margin. The K-12 education funding bill increases support for school districts’ general fund budgets by about 3 percent annually, or $48.6 million through 2011. But with both bills stalled one week before the deadline, it’s unclear what type of compromise is necessary to pass through committee.

With two major pieces of legislation deadlocked in evenly split committees, other bills could meet a similar fate. And as news of the CHIP deadlock spread through the capitol today, the realization gradually dawned that the comity and camaraderie of the 2009 Legislature could be headed for a bit of a rough patch.

After having covered one day of this Legislature, I am in no position to comment on the broad direction and tone of this session, other than to make the initial judgment that the lawmakers seem a lot more relaxed than they did in 2007. That’s a good thing, but the relaxation seems to derive in part from the fact that lawmakers have yet to confront the biggest and toughest spending and budgetary decisions – their chief Constitutional responsibility.

But with the adoption of a state revenue estimate some $251 million lower than what a panel predicted last fall, and a sprawling federal stimulus bill now signed into law, Democrats, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer, appear to be losing patience with Republicans questioning whether the state can currently afford bills like CHIP expansion or education funding increases.

Meanwhile, some Republicans I spoke with question the assumptions of the revenue forecast, which seem overly optimistic to them in anticipating that state revenues could begin to recover in as soon as a year. This skepticism has them believing that in a so-called belt-tightening session, Montana’s belt may need to get yanked a little tighter.

On top of that, any general bills – as in those that don’t deal with revenue or appropriations – that aren’t passed out of the House or Senate by the Feb. 26 transmittal deadline die, so lawmakers are now scrambling to introduce last minute bills or ram through legislation they’ve neglected. And all a committee chair has to do if he or she doesn’t like a particular bill is refuse to hold a hearing on it.

The budgeting process this year is already complicated due to the stimulus, with legislators crafting a pared down budget, and hoping they can use stimulus money, which is one-time spending, to backfill some areas and hopefully free up some more general fund cash. Chuck Johnson explains the process in greater depth here.

The specter of the stimulus, paired with the dismal economy, seems to have spared lawmakers some of the straightforward partisan confrontations over spending, so far. There’s no money to fund Democratic-backed policy initiatives, nor Republican-supported tax cuts, and everyone seems to know it. But as the stimulus money arrives, disagreements over its designation and oversight could ensue.

What has been a relatively sedate session so far could be on the verge of getting interesting.

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