Legislature reaches unprecedented stalemate on revenue estimate

A committee of state lawmakers found themselves in an unprecedented stalemate earlier this week.

The legislature’s Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee failed to pass an official revenue estimate in their last scheduled meeting before the legislative session begins in January. It’s the first time the committee has not passed a revenue estimate since the current process was put into place a couple decades ago.

The estimate failed on a party line vote as democrats are trying to get some change into the process.

The Montana Legislature’s revenue estimate is a big deal. Legislative services chief legal counsel Todd Everts says it’s the starting point lawmakers use to set their budget. Because by law, budget expenditures cannot exceed the revenue estimate. So you have to have a revenue estimate “and under law it’s the revenue and transportation interim committee that’s required to introduce that resolution,” Everts said.

And normally the Revenue and Transportation committee passes the resolution on their last meeting before the session. They are required to do so before the first business day in December.

This time it failed on a six to six party line vote. Democrats wanted to take the revenue estimate resolution and put it into a bill—specifically the general budget bill known as House Bill two.

The Governor’s office has thrown their support behind the idea.

“What we’re proposing to do is no different than what every family in Montana does with their checkbook. Make sure your expenses and your revenues are all kept in one place,” said the Governor’s Budget Director, Dan Villa. It’s also a strategy.

“It would require that all 150 Legislators for the first time in four sessions actually have the opportunity to vote not only on what the expenses look like but what the revenues look like,” Villa said.

During the last few sessions, both Democratic and Republican Speakers of the House have sort of held the revenue estimate hostage from the Senate. This happens by the Speaker keeping the revenue estimate in the House Taxation committee and it never gets debated by the full House or Senate. Lawmakers on both sides during the interim have been working on a way to address this situation. The idea of moving the revenue estimate into the larger budget bill was the Democrat’s way of going about this. But Legislative legal counsel Todd Everts says it would be in conflict of the state constitution.

“The Constitution requires that the general appropriation bill shall only contain appropriations,” Everts said.

The Governor’s office disagrees. But Senate Minority Leader, Butte Democrat Jon Sesso says they will accept the recommendations of legislative staff.

“OK, we don’t want to push for an alternative our own attorneys are advising us against, so we set that down,” Sesso said.

But the Democrats still didn’t approve the resolution. Sesso says the Revenue and Transportation committee should wait until the Rules committee meets on December 3rd to consider some rule changes and then convene a last minute impromptu meeting to pass the revenue estimate.

Sesso says he’s worried by passing the revenue estimate first the rules to change how it would be implemented would not have been passed by the rules committee “and as a result it would have been business as ususal and I thought that we had bipartisan support that business as usual was not acceptable anymore,” he said.

Sesso and Senate President, Billings Republican Jeff Essmann  both sit on the Revenue and Transporation Committee.

Essmann calls this irresponsible. He says the committee was talking about rule changes to how the revenue estimate is put to use. But he says passing those rules is the job of the rules committee. The revenue committee, he says, is supposed to pass the estimate.

“To attempt to use their effort to block the fulfillment of a statutory duty in an effort to force a rule change I think was counter productive,” Essmann said.

Especially when there is general consensus on the amount of the revenue estimate which is rare. He’s not so sure there will be an impromptu meeting on December 3rd.

“I expect the rules committee to meet to discuss the proposed rule changes and make a decision,” he said.

“And then you will all meet as Revenue and Transportation right afterward?” I asked.

“No, that meeting has not been called,” Essmann replied.

“Do you expect it to be called?” I asked.

“Not at this point.”

“So then what happens if there is not a meeting held on its last statutorily possible date to pass that revenue estimate?”

“I’ll be discussing that with the Speaker of the House,” Essmann said.

If the estimate is not passed as required by law, Legislative legal Counsel Todd Everts isn’t sure what is going to happen.

“I’m not sure what the remedy would be,” he said.

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