Senate Republicans Unveil Collective Priorities

By Beacon Staff

HELENA —Senate Republicans have quietly unveiled collective priorities for their majority that are topped by a goal to limit state spending increases to 2 percent.

GOP leaders that run the chamber polled their members on their collective priorities following a dustup last month over the direction of the caucus. They released the list of 33 bills and budget priorities to members at a meeting Friday.

The group, which holds a 29-21 advantage in the chamber, said Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s requested spending increase of 13 percent over two years is too much. A poll found that no one supported such an increase.

But members indicated that they were willing to endorse some spending increases, perhaps including some sort of pay hike for state employees who have labored for years under a pay freeze, Sen. Majority Leader Art Wittich said. The largest group advocated for a spending increase of between 2 and 4 percent. Keeping state spending the same was also popular. The average worked out to 1.3 percent.

Wittich said the cap on spending increases is not a “magic number” and mostly serves as a guide for budget negotiations that intensify at session’s end.

“The really tough decisions are down the road,” Wittich said. “I think this is a good indication of the sense of the caucus, but clearly a lot will happen between now and then.”

Wittich said proposals receiving support from 26 of 29 Republicans in the caucus were included. The list could be expanded as new ideas come forward, he said.

“It does provide a pretty good send of a collective view from a diverse caucus,” the Bozeman Republican said.

Policy proposals predictably included Republican plans for a business equipment tax rate cut — which is competing with Bullock’s proposal for an increase in the threshold that would eradicate the tax for all businesses with less than $100,000 in equipment.

The caucus is also backing an 81-page rewrite of the state’s tax structure that will get a hearing later this week. It aims to simplify rates and deductions. Other tax bills include one that would use a different method to simplify and reduce rates, and another that would include fossil fuels in the state’s tax “clean and green” tax break for electricity generation.

Democrats have so far expressed opposition to reducing tax rates for the top income earners, and argued that it is wrong to add fuels like coal to the “clean and green” tax credit used to spur wind energy development.

The Republicans said they will also back limits on corporate money in politics close to elections — a proposal that would also limit corporately-owned newspaper editorials. That measure includes a legal note that it may run into issues with constitutional free speech protections.

Senate Republicans are backing other election-related bills, including a House proposal to increase contribution limits for candidates. Supporters say it will help candidates compete with outside groups that are able to raise much more money, while opponents argue pouring more money into politics is not the solution.

The list also includes a proposal in the House to only allow the top two vote getters in primary elections to advance to the general election, a measure that would make it much more difficult for third-party candidates to appear on the general election ballot.

Some of the other GOP priorities include proposals to let landowners shoot troublesome wolves and another aimed at helping control bison.

The list only includes two of the pro-gun measures percolating in the Legislature, and it doesn’t back bills in the House seeking to allow guns in schools and to let nearly anyone carry a concealed weapon without a permit. The list also does not include any of the measures dealing with abortion.

Also not making the list is a big rewrite of education funding that aims to increase money for schools while also cutting property taxes, a two-year project of a Republican state senator and school groups. The measure is expected to need bipartisan support to succeed without caucus support.

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