HELENA — The upcoming session of the Montana Legislature will focus on tightening the state budget, and there will not be much money available for new initiatives, the incoming leaders of Republican legislative majority said Monday.
Republicans elected Sen. Scott Sales of Bozeman to be Senate president for the session that begins in January.
Sales, a former speaker of the House, said he does not expect to take up controversial bills like those that marked the 2015 session, such as legislation to expand Medicaid and to reform the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws.
Instead, the focus will be on cutting spending, he said.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of interest in raising taxes, so with declining revenues and if we’re not going to raise taxes, we’re going to have to sharpen our pen,” Sales said.
Rep. Austin Knudsen of Culbertson, who was re-elected House speaker by the GOP caucus, said the budget crunch should temper the expectations of Republicans who were buoyed by big election wins in federal and state races.
“I can tell you I’m concerned about being able to pay for what we’ve got, going forward,” he said.
State tax collections are tens of millions of dollars below expectations for individual income taxes, corporate income taxes and energy taxes — largely due to low crude oil prices and drops in coal production.
That has resulted in the erosion of the state’s rainy day fund from $350 million last year to $255 million this summer. It could drop to below $120 million by next summer, according to legislative fiscal analysts.
Democratic Gov. Bullock planned to release his two-year budget plan on Tuesday, saying it would include proposals to spend on building the state’s infrastructure, support job creation and expand affordable health care access, among other investments.
Knudsen and Sales said they hope to work with the governor after Montana voters kept both the Democratic governor and the GOP legislative majority.
“I really, honestly think Montanans, they want balance,” Sales said. “I think that fiscal accountability is something that’s important to them, but by the same measure, they apparently do not want one-party rule.”
Legislative leaders from both parties said they would like to pass legislation that will pay for infrastructure projects, particularly in eastern Montana, where roads and water systems are straining under an influx of people who moved there to work the Bakken oil boom in nearby North Dakota.
Infrastructure bills to help eastern Montana have failed in the past two sessions, one going down by a Bullock veto and another rejected by the Republican majority.
Despite pledging to work with Bullock, Knudsen said he would follow through on the promise made during the height of the governor’s race to investigate whether Bullock broke any laws by not retaining emails during his time as attorney general from 2009-2013.
Bullock has said he turned over case files and other public records to current Attorney General Tim Fox, and let his old state email account lapse after leaving office.
The Democrats elected Rep. Jenny Eck of Helena and Sen. Jon Sesso of Butte as minority leaders in each chamber. Eck said legislative Democrats would do what they can to defend Bullock and to check Republicans emboldened by the election of President-elect Donald Trump to try to push an extreme agenda.
“We are going to be the defensive line, there’s no doubt about it,” Eck said. “A lot of people around Montana and around the country are very fearful about what’s coming our way.”
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