Montana Lawmakers Shuffle Big Pieces as Deadlines Loom

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Montana House advanced a pay raise for state employees and endorsed the governor’s proposed fix for the beleaguered pension systems as lawmakers eyeing compromise turned their attention to big pieces of legislation.

The lawmakers, with a month left in the session, face deadlines this week and next week to advance bills that spend money or deal with tax revenue. And they continued a trend Wednesday of finding bipartisan support for potential compromises between the GOP-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, although his Medicaid expansion plans hit a roadblock.

“We are trying to work together, reach across the aisle. It is good to see,” said Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena. “Now is when you are starting to see the pieces that need to come to conclusion come into focus a little bit.”

The proposed fix to the teachers’ retirement system backed by Bullock was endorsed by the House on a 63-36 vote, and the pension fix for most other public employees was backed 64-36. The bills would reduce benefits and ask both employees and employers to pay more into a pension system with a projected $4 billion shortfall.

The package was opposed by some Republicans who had backed a failed plan to end the pension system for new employees and replace it with something like a 401(k) savings plan.

The House also advanced a compromise pay hike plan Wednesday with a 69-31 vote.

House Republicans had been stonewalling a proposed 5 percent pay increase each of the next two years for state employees because they argued many employees actually received pay hikes during the salary freezes of the past four years. Instead they cut the overall price tag by 25 percent, to about $113 million.

There is no longer a blanket pay raise for all employees, but backers said they will trust the new Bullock administration to give pay raises to those who really deserve it. State workers lined the halls before the vote, urging lawmakers to approve the pay raise.

“The time has come to act on it and show all involved that we are indeed acting in good faith,” said Rep. Kathy Swanson, D-Anaconda.

The votes demonstrated that the biggest issues this session dealing with the budget and education could come down to a group of Republicans working with Democrats trying to get compromise proposals to the governor’s desk.

The House will be sending the budget bills over to a Senate that has revolted against its conservative GOP leaders on some key issues.

The House on Wednesday also advanced, with a 75-25 vote, a $94 million plan to pay for building projects around the state, including $23 million for a new state historical museum in Helena. The bill was amended to spend another $75 million on building projects if a bill sought by Democrats to borrow money for those educational-related buildings fails. That bonding bill is currently stalled in committee as backers try to get the two-thirds support constitutionally needed to borrow money.

Lawmakers are sorting out the bills as the competing priorities, including some tax cuts sought by Republicans, promise to eat through the state’s surplus once projected at around $400 million.

The displays of bipartisanship extended only so far.

Bullock’s proposed expansion of Medicaid for the working poor, a plan that relies on federal money from the federal health care overhaul, was tabled late Wednesday in committee. Supporters held out hope the issue could be resuscitated, although an effort to do so late Wednesday was rejected on the House floor, and Republican senators could do the same with versions in that chamber.

Republicans opposing expansion argue the state cost will go up in future budget periods as federal money dries up.

Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, said he opposed the federal government “borrowing from China” to bribe states to expand Medicaid.

Late Wednesday, GOP lawmakers advanced out of committee a measure intended to be an alternative — although they left it up to the Senate to write the details. House Republicans also advanced a plan to study the issue two more years.

Bullock was critical.

“Today, legislators who signed up for taxpayer funded health care for themselves and profess a desire to create jobs, said ‘no,’ to health care for thousands of others, ‘no’ to creating thousands of jobs and ‘no’ to the thousands of constituents who contacted them supporting this measure,” Bullock said in a statement.

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