Montana Legislature Adjourns for Mid-session Break

When they return, they begin work on finalizing a state budget

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN, Associated Press

HELENA — The Montana House broke for a short recess Wednesday, joining Senate colleagues in a brief break before reconvening Monday to begin work on finalizing a state budget and crafting a comprehensive infrastructure plan that has long eluded a fractured state government.

Central to the task is bridging differences over spending and taxes. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has proposed a budget that keeps $300 million in reserves, but Republican leaders are reluctant to leave that much money in the bank.

And Republicans are also wary of new taxes, including “revenue enhancers” the governor and Democrats have proposed — such as a tax on wine and establishing a new income tax bracket for the state’s wealthiest residents.

Republican leaders have signaled that they were more amenable to reducing the rainy day fund to $200 million.

Before adjourning, the House gave final passage to a slate of final bills, but rejected on a tie vote a proposal that sought to criminalize physician-assisted suicide.

Both chambers had until Wednesday to pass most proposals before returning to their districts for their mid-session hiatus.

Legislators in both chambers introduced nearly 989 bills — significantly fewer than the nearly 1,200 introduced in the previous session two years ago. The lower number is a result of the budgetary challenges the state faces partly because of lower tax revenues from oil and gas production.

As of Wednesday, 554 bills remained active.

“Everybody’s been pretty realistic that there’s not a pile of money out there to throw on new bills and new programs, so it’s made for … a fairly calm first half of the session,” House Speaker Austin Knudsen told reporters earlier this week.

The House Appropriations Committee will start work on a budget bill on the first Tuesday after the recess, said Rep. Nancy Ballance, the Republican from Hamilton who chairs the committee. A proposal could be sent to the full House by March 16, she said.

Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, meaning Democrats must seek support from moderate Republicans.

“We’ve been in the minority, so it’s been a struggle to get every single bill over the finish line,” said Rep. Jenny Eck, of Helena, the Democratic Minority Leader in the House.

Bullock said he was hopeful legislators would “roll up their sleeves, put aside their differences and get to work crafting a budget that levels the playing field for Montana taxpayers, makes responsible investments in critical services and keeps money in the bank for a rainy day.”

The infrastructure debate is expected to be another contentious battle, with both sides differing on what to fund and how to pay for it.

Democrats want an infrastructure package that includes renovating a hall at Montana State University in Bozeman, a veterans home in Butte and a historical museum in Helena.

Republican leaders want to focus funding for projects such as roads, bridges and water systems that they consider essential and leave aside building projects they say should have lower priority in challenging budget times.

Also at issue is whether Republicans can accept a funding package that includes a mixture of cash and bonds.

Republican purists have generally opposed using bonds — which they consider debt — to finance projects.

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