An Unprecedented Legislative Session

Caven Wade and Elinor Smith are student reporters with the UM Legislative News Service. This is one of their reports:

HELENA — The 68th Montana Legislature, with an unprecedented Republican supermajority, is halfway through its 90-day session and the next 45 days promise to be dominated by debates over the state’s two-year budget, which funds everything from schools to Medicaid payments to nursing homes and mental health providers. 

Jessi Bennion, a professor of political science at Montana State University and Carroll College, said there are many things that stick out this session as being out of the ordinary — notably the $2.5 billion surplus and the Republican supermajority. She also said there’s been a far larger number of bills proposed this session than sessions previous — something that she attributes to the Republican trifecta of controlling both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office.

“Republicans were very, very successful in Montana in this last election, and have been for at least a decade in this state,” Bennion said. “They’re acting like they have that mandate from the people. And so we’re seeing a lot of ideas, bills, come forth that can only really be explained because they hold that power.” 

Bennion anticipates the second half of the session might be about whittling bills down until they work for both parties.

“They will do a lot of strategizing, finding compromises until they can pass those bills,” Bennion said.

Constitutionally, the Legislature only has one assignment and that’s to pass a balanced budget. During the first half of the session, joint subcommittees hammered out each section of House Bill 2, the main budget bill. Now, the House Appropriation Committee is working through the document piece by piece — amending, reallocating and compromising until they reach their final agreement. 

The Republican caucus kicked off the legislative session with a hefty expectation of using the $2.5 billion surplus to give tax money back to the people of Montana in the form of tax cuts and rebates.

The party will come into the second half divided on spending the remaining $1.5 billion of the surplus. 

The $950 million already spent by the legislature is a product of what is known as the “eight pack” which includes: House Bill 192, which spends $480 million on property and income tax rebates, House Bill 222, which spends $280 million on property tax rebates, House Bill 267, which would put $100 million into the state’s highway fund, and House Bill 251, which would allocate $125 million to paying off the state’s debts.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said with the remaining surplus in the second half of the session, the debate on how to spend it will fall between aligned factions.

“You’ve got a group of Republicans who want to do more … rebates. You’ve got Democrats who want to have almost all social spending, and then you’ve got kind of a mix in the middle and that’s going to be the negotiation,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick said before the halfway mark, several bills in the governor’s package were killed by groups of Democrats and conservative Republicans, but the two do not have common ground and are doing it for different reasons. 

“The hardcore conservatives are doing it because they want more rebates. The Democrats are doing it in order to try and increase their leverage in the process by denying votes to the more moderate Republicans,” Fitzpatrick said.

Democrats have a different idea on the budget and the surplus. They say they see the surplus as an opportunity to invest in Montana’s future and they want to invest a sizable chunk of the surplus into Montana’s coal trust, an account that holds money taxed on natural resources collected in the state.

Days before the transmittal deadline, the Senate Local Government Committee tabled Senate Bill 346, 6-3 on a party-line vote. Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, was sponsoring the bill, which would have moved $2 billion of the surplus into the coal trust.

Democrats now shift their aim to House Bill 2 and as the fight over how to divide the surplus up continues, leaders say the caucus is growing increasingly concerned with their ability to find a compromise that will satisfy both parties.

“We have a generational opportunity right now to invest in real problems in our communities, in childcare, affordable housing and things that we’re hearing from businesses every day, from families every day that are real issues in their communities and, for permanent property tax relief, which the GOP refuses to consider seriously,” House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said at a press conference at the session’s half-way mark.

The full House is expected to debate HB 2 this week.



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