Montana Legislature Adjourns After Passing $10.3B Budget

The House held its final vote Thursday afternoon on a budget bill that forecasts a $210 million surplus

By Molly Priddy

HELENA, — Montana lawmakers adjourned the 2019 session Thursday after passing a $10.3 billion budget to pay for state services over the next two years and a measure to raise the state’s lodging tax to improve the Montana Historical Society museum and other museums statewide.

The House held its final vote Thursday afternoon on a budget bill that forecasts a $210 million surplus in the event expenses run higher or revenues come in lower than expected. Representatives then approved a measure that had failed in previous sessions to remodel and expand the historical society museum and offer grants for improvements to other museums statewide.

One of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s top priorities, expanding publicly funded preschool programs, was shot down earlier Thursday on a 4-2 party line vote by a committee considering companion legislation to the budget bill. The Republican majority voted against the plan.

An $11 million proposal to continue the existing program also was shot down, effectively ending the state’s preschool pilot program that lawmakers passed in 2017.

Republican Rep. Nancy Ballance said the pilot program was created to take advantage of federal funding that has now ended.

Democratic Rep. Ryan Lynch said ending the program was a step backward while Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso noted Montana was one of just a few states that do not fund public preschool.

The Senate adjourned first, officially ending some lawmakers’ hopes to revive legislation to allow NorthWestern Energy to buy an additional share of a high-voltage power line and possibly a larger share of a coal-fired power plant in Colstrip.

Two of the plant’s four units are scheduled to close by July 2022, and the bill would have allowed NorthWestern to more easily acquire a bigger stake in one of the newer units from co-owners looking to sell their ownership in coal-generated electricity.

The budget bill cut funding for about 100 vacant positions in the Department of Public Health and Human Services and restored other cuts made because of declining revenues after the 2017 session.

“This is probably not something that everyone loves, but it’s probably the best this group could have done,” Ballance said Thursday, noting the Senate only made five amendments to the budget bill, and only one was substantive.

Lawmakers will also leave $61 million in a budget stabilization fund and set a framework for future bonding of infrastructure projects.

Earlier this month, the Legislature passed a measure to continue Montana’s Medicaid expansion program for another six years.

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