HELENA – The Montana Legislature is halfway through its session — but seemingly no closer to bridging the large policy differences splitting Republican and Democrats than when it started early last month.
Lawmakers left town Thursday for a long weekend break at the halfway point talking about those differences — and looking forward to budget negotiations that ramp up next week with the full House appropriations committee taking up the main spending bill.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso wasn’t bashful his view of the end game. The Butte Democrat predicted that a divide in the Republican caucus on key issues will force them to seek out Democrats. Sesso said “the Democrats are going to ultimately prevail.”
“The bottom line here is we have to pass a budget. And they can’t pass budget without us,” Sesso said.
Republican House Speaker Mark Blasdel responded simply: “We’ll see.”
The Republican-led Legislature has so far spurned many of the proposals from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. And Bullock this week formally added a new request disliked by Republicans: the federally funded expansion of Medicaid.
Republicans argue that Bullock’s budget request spends too much, although GOP-led budget subcommittees have so far only trimmed about $25 million of the roughly $10 billion budget offering. Some of what has been chopped stings Democrats, such as federal money for family planning that can go to groups like Planned Parenthood.
“It’s just a difference in ideology,” Blasdel said. “One side believes the government is the answer; we believe the private sector is the answer.”
And Democrats on Thursday made a point of giving the Republicans low marks for the GOP’s proposed fixes, criticizing the GOP for a fixation on federal issues and tax breaks that favor the wealthy.
“Now the time has come that we need to deliver on the promises that have been made to work together,” said House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena.
All of the session’s big issues remain: fixing pensions, pay raises for state employees laboring under a multi-year pay freeze, property tax cuts both sides seek, income tax cuts sought by Republicans, Medicaid expansion under the federal health care law, wildly disparate ideas from each side to create jobs and others.
Work on the largest issue of all looms as lawmakers return next week and the full House Appropriations Committee starts taking action on the state budget.
Blasdel, a Somers restaurant owner, said Republicans are looking for a way to give some state employees a pay raise. And he believes a pensions committee tasked with solving that problem will find a workable solution.
The first half of the session was less about the budget and more focused on individual policy ideas from legislators. Republicans have advanced ideologically important measures such as a ban on physician-assisted suicide, a measure allowing guns on college campuses, parental approval for teens seeking an abortion, and a bill making it a crime for employers to hire illegal immigrants.
The money issues over the next 45 days could be just as contentious. But leaders from both sides remained hopeful, pointing to relations farm more cordial than in past years.
Republicans who for years labored under harsh treatment from Gov. Brian Schweitzer, praised Bullock for friendly dialogue and an open door. Both sides said they speak regularly.
“I hope he enacts and signs some of our bills,” said Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann, who last session saw Schweitzer publicly torch GOP bills on the front steps of the Capitol.
The Billings Republican, unconcerned that so much work remains, said plenty of time remains to find compromise.
“It’s like a normal legislative session,” he said. “We are about 50 percent done from a time standpoint, and 10 percent done on finishing what we need to.”
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