Montana House Embraces Budget Bill; Veto Threat Looms

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The House embraced the latest version of the state’s main budget bill Thursday despite a looming veto threat from Gov. Steve Bullock.

The chamber accepted the Senate’s changes to House Bill 2 in a bipartisan 63-37 vote Thursday. A final vote is scheduled for Friday before it’s sent to the governor.

There was very little discussion, and no debate, on the $9 billion measure that guides most state spending.

Republican leaders called it a “tight” budget. But many conservatives voted no in protest of increased spending in the budget, especially when combined with other bills dealing with pay increases, pension overhauls, Medicaid expansion and school funding.

And some Republicans also opposed the Senate decision to restore federal family planning money, a compromise move that was done when Republicans secured the permanent elimination of 500 state jobs that are currently vacant. But GOP house leaders said that, overall, they are getting about as much as they could hope for with the governor’s office in Democratic hands.

Democrats said they like the measure, although they hope Bullock will return it with suggested changes. Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn next week.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter said that he thinks the major bills lurching toward final approval will solve pressing problems by giving pay raises to employees who have labored under a multi-year pay freeze, fix a pension system facing a $4 billion shortfall, help the working poor get health insurance and solve other issues.

“I think all of the pieces are really in place,” Hunter said. “We have the ability with all the pieces in place to have a successful session.”

But Hunter said he is worried Republican leaders in both chambers who have opposed measures that some in their caucus defected on will use “procedural efforts” to scuttle them. Speculation was rampant that House leaders could block it from returning to the House floor. The Senate approved the plan earlier this week.

House Speaker Mark Blasdel said he is “looking at a lot of options.”

Lawmakers said that they are discussing final negotiations with Bullock’s office on many bills, including a GOP plan to reduce the business equipment tax and simplify the filing of state income taxes.

But no further changes were planned in the main budget bill, even though Bullock sent a statement when it cleared the Senate on Saturday saying “the budget is unacceptable and, barring changes, I’ll be forced to veto it.”

A straight-up veto of the budget would be a setback for lawmakers who have carefully orchestrated the measure’s bipartisan passage. An earlier version in the House even received a very rare unanimous vote. But lawmakers seemed to indicate Bullock could offer an “amendatory veto,” which is more like suggested changes.

Blasdel said it will soon be up to the governor to decide.

“It’s kind of a surprise that he would when every member of his party supported the budget the way it is right now,” Blasdel said. “Now we’ll see what his issues are at this point.”

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