Senate adjourns, passing budget after gridlock– 2013 Legislature closed

Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich (left) and Sen. Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge) speak with Minority Leader Jon Sesso(right)  after Senate blocks budget amendments negotiated between the House and Governor Steve Bullock

Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich (left) and Sen. Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge) speak with Minority Leader Jon Sesso(right) after Senate blocks budget amendments negotiated between the House and Governor Steve Bullock

UPDATE 3:13PM: The Senate votes 49-1 to adjourn Sine Die. Sen. Scott Sales (R-Bozeman) opposing–as a joke, it seemed.

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UPDATE 3:07: The Senate voted 28-22 to approve the budget amendments reached between the House and Governor Bullock. Senators are giving closing speeches.

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UPDATE 2:34: The budget amendments are brought up onto the Senate floor on the 4th time through the vote– 37-13. The body is now taking a short break.

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UPDATE 2:21: The Senate again failed to bring the budget amendments to the floor, losing a vote. 32-18.

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UPDATE 2:00 PM: Several sources reporting Senator Jonathan Windy Boy (D-Box Elder) voted against bringing budget amendments to Senate floor.

Montana Television Network State Politics Reporter Marnee Banks tweets:

Sen Driscoll & Sen Sesso had words with Sen Windy Boy after he voted with R’s to kill the Governor’s amendment to the budget

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UPDATE 1:47 PM: The Senate has just gavelled back into order and failed to bring SB410 onto the floor with a 33-17 vote. It needed a 34-16 vote.

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Senate lawmakers have reached an impasse on the state budget deal negotiated last night between the House of Representatives and Governor Steve Bullock just a couple of hours after the House adjourned for the 2013 Legislative Session.

The Senate failed to reach the required two-thirds majority vote needed to suspend the body’s rules and accept SB410 for consideration, a bill containing amendments to the state budget. The vote was 27-23. SB410 was the product of late-night negotiations with Governor Bullock on the state’s main budget bill, HB2. Bullock has said HB2 as it stands is not acceptable, and the amendments included in SB410 were an attempt to prevent his veto.

Senate Republican leadership characterizes the vote not to accept the budget amendment bill as a bargaining tool to try to get more of their bills signed by the Governor.

Senate majority and minority leadership gathered just outside the Senate chambers for an intense exhange immediately following the 27-23 vote.

“To bring it (SB410) over here as part of the process was understood between the Speaker and the Governor,”  said Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso.

Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich faults the amendment bill for adding more than $13 million  to the two-year, $10 billion budget . “That was never even discussed,” he said.”(The House) couldn’t have spoken for us because we didn’t know about the changes until after it happened.”

“You were given every opportunity to participate in those negotiations last night,” said Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso.

“I think we have to see if the Governor wants to talk,” said Senator Jason Priest (R-Red Lodge), speaking with reporters after the heated discussion with Senator Sesso. Priest says Senate leadership wants to speak with the Governor on ‘a handful of priority bills’ but would not elaborate on what those bills are.

Lee Newspapers Reporter Charles S. Johnson tweeted shortly thereafter:

Gov. Bullock’s senior adviser Jim Molloy to reporters: “There will be no negotiations.”

 Senator Llew Jones (R-Conrad) also sent several tweets as the Senate stood in recess after the SB410 vote, including:

Senator Priest and President Essman were present in negotiations yesterday. Still playing games, trying to get more.

Speaker so upset he leaves building. Ankey wonders what happened to integrity.

The Senate still stands in recess after the decision. We will be bringing you more on what still may be (but who knows now) the last day of the 2013 Legislature.

Last ‘Medicaid Expansion’ proposal in Montana Legislature probably dead

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter (D-Helena), right, speaks with Montana Legislature Chief Legal Counsel Todd Everts about a vote to refer HB623 to committee, effectively killing it.

House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter (D-Helena), right, speaks with Montana Legislature Chief Legal Counsel Todd Everts about a vote to refer HB623 to committee, effectively killing it.

The last plan before state lawmakers to use federal Medicaid funds to expand health insurance to tens of thousands of uninsured Montanans is mostly likely dead after being referred to a committee hostile to the bill in the legislature’s final days.

HB623 would have used Medicaid Expansion funds provided to states through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to allow eligible low-income Montanans to buy private health coverage on the insurance exchanges also set up by ACA. The other, more standard, Medicaid Expansion bills have already been tabled by the legislature.

During Friday’s House floor session, House Speaker Mark Blasdel (R-Somers) said he was referring that bill back to the House Health and Human Services Committee. As far as Minority Leader Chuck Hunter (D-Helena) is concerned, that move probably kills the bill.

“That is the Committee that was built for the very purpose of saying no to any kind of expansion of Medicaid and that will no doubt be the fate of this bill as well,” he said.

Hunter appealed Speaker Blasdel’s decision to move the bill to committee—which takes a majority vote. But when the body took that vote, a few Representatives were confused on what their vote meant, like Great Falls Democrat Tom Jacobson.

“I hit my yes button, my green button in support of that motion which in my mind was in support of Chuck,” Jacobson said. “But apparently the way the motion was read, it should have been a no.”

Here’s how speaker Blasdel described the motion on the floor:

“Members of the body, this is a majority vote, a yes vote concurs with the ruling of the chair. A no vote does not.”

That would mean a yes vote agreed with Blasdel’s decision to send the bill to committee. The final tally was an even 50 to 50—with Jacobsen’s accidental vote the only Democratic yes. A tie vote in this circumstance went in Blasdel’s favor—sending the bill to the committee. House Members took a break shortly thereafter and leadership discussed options to reconsider that vote. The break lasted over an hour.

“I think that vote was a failure that didn’t adequately represent the true feelings of the members on the floor,” Hunter said. “When we came back to do a reconsideration the other side had whipped their votes and coerced some folks into changing their votes on those bills.”

A majority vote of 51 would have brought the bill back up to the floor—in theory that’s what the original vote would have been if Representative Jacobsen had voted with the Democrats like he intended. But the reconsideration vote failed 48-52. Speaker Blasdel agrees some minds were changed while leadership discussed reconsideration options.

“There was a lot of misunderstandings about what got put into that bill and what wasn’t,” he said. “There was a lot of discussion among members, obviously I just wanted to take time to look at things with the minority leader and figure out how we were going to proceed.”

Democratic Governor Steve Bullock strongly advocates Medicaid Expansion—and he was quick to condemn the decision.

“These legislators who voted to send our tax dollars out of state are going to have to go home and tell their bosses that they stood in the way of lower health care costs, they stood in the way of good paying jobs and they stood in the way of access to affordable health care for tens of thousands of Montanans who desperately need it,” he said. Great Falls Tribune Capitol Bureau Chief John S. Adams posted the Governor’s full comments.

The Governor did not outright refuse using a veto of the state budget as a bargaining chip to get lawmakers to reconsider some kind of Medicaid Expansion, saying “I think everything’s on the table but we really should be responsible to make sure this gets done, be that this week or the weeks ahead.”

The Legislature is set to wrap up sometime next week.

Who’s winning and losing as the legislature winds down

Johnson, Mauk & Dennison 3SMALLTonight on “Capitol Talk”, our weekly legislative analysis program, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison about where all the big-ticket items stand a week before adjournment: the budget, Medicaid expansion, state workers’ pay raises and pensions –  and school funding. They also discuss the unlikely hero of the session for gay rights supporters….

Law banning gay sex in Montana removed from the books

Linda Gryczon, the lead plaintiff in the MT Supreme Court case throwing out the state's ban on homosexual sex, celebrates the law's official removal Thursday

Linda Gryczan, the lead plaintiff in the MT Supreme Court case throwing out the state’s ban on homosexual sex, celebrates the law’s official removal Thursday

“I am not going to speak too long,” Governor Steve Bullock told the cheering crowd packed into the rotunda of the state capitol building. “Because frankly, the longer I talk the longer this unconstitutional and embarrassing law continues to stay on our books.”
Bullock shortly thereafter signed Senate Bill 107, which officially removes a law criminalizing homosexual sex in the state. The Montana Supreme Court struck down the law 15 years ago, but state legislators kept the law on the books.
Helena lobbyist Linda Gryczan filed the original suit which led to the Supreme Court nullifying the ban. A gay woman, Gryczan said the Thursday ceremony to remove the defunct law meant a lot more than if the legislature would have dropped it shortly after the 1997 Supreme Court decision.
“Because (that) would have followed the normal course of what you’d expect, unconstitutional law, you take it off the books…it makes sense,” Gryczan said. “Unfortunately to a lot of people, prejudice got in the way and we had to fight that prejudice.”
A bill to toss the law failed every other attempt before the Montana Legislature before this year. This time, the Senate voted 38-11 to pass the law. The House passed it with a 64-35 vote.
Representative Jerry Bennett (R-Libby)

Representative Jerry Bennett (R-Libby)

Representative Jerry Bennett (R-Libby) was one of the 35 Republicans who opposed the bill. He says he’s against the bill on religious grounds, but it was not a hateful vote. “God says we’re to love one another…but I still have to remain true to my beliefs in God and what he asks of us and so balancing that is a very difficult thing at times.”

The final debate on the House floor was largely between Republicans, with many arguing to remove the law to recognize individual rights and privacy. Arguably the most passionate testimony in favor of SB107 came from Representative Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip), who has a gay daughter.
To say she is any less of a person, or she is a criminal for her lifestyle, really upsets me. And for anybody that would feel that way—upsets me,” Ankney said, pointing at the other lawmakers. “I don’t think God thinks any less of my daughter than he does of any one of you in here.”
Montana Human Rights Network Lobbyist Jamee Greer says the passage of SB107 is “the first explicit victory for the LGBT community through the (Montana) legislature in history.” He believes it may be a watershed moment for gay rights in the state.
Governor Steve Bullock signs Senate Bill 107 with Rep. Bryce Bennet (left) and Senator Tom Facey looking on.

Governor Steve Bullock signs Senate Bill 107 with Rep. Bryce Bennet (left) and Senator Tom Facey looking on.

Senate gives initial approval to pension fixes

State Senators have given initial approval to a pair of bills seeking to fix the state’s public employee pension systems.

A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans passed the bills.

The measures fund long-term debt that faces the state’s two biggest retirement plans.

Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce says some Republicans don’t think that is going to work.

Senate passes first state employee base pay raises in four years


The Montana Senate has passed a $116 million dollar two-year pay plan for state employees on a 37-13 vote.

It has already passed the House, but is heading back to that chamber for consideration of a Senate amendment.

Lawmakers have not given state employees base pay raises for more than four years. Senator Alan Olson (R-Roundup) said it’s time to give the raises to ensure the state retains a quality workforce.

“We want to permit coal mines, we want to permit oil wells, we want to build highways, and we need to have the qualified people there to do it,” Olson said. 

The bill removes a quarter of the funding from the $152 million pay plan originally negotiated by unions and former Governor Brian Schweitzer. That deal would have given all state employees a five percent raise each of the next two years. 

Several lawmakers complained the legislature is not included in those negotiations. Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek) believes it’s a flawed system, saying “the whole problem is that there’s a negotiation that takes place and this body is not at the table and yet, (the legislature) comes back and is responsible for funding it.”

The new plan would give the smaller amount back to Governor Steve Bullock for re-negotiation, requesting special emphasis on the employees who have not received other types of raises over the past few years. The amendment added by the Senate also changes how future pay increases will be determined. Currently, the state compares the pay of similar government jobs in surrounding states as well as comparable jobs in the private sector in order to set wages. The amendment removes the consideration of the private sector.

“It is ironic that the legislature that wrote the law enabling the executive to give raises is now complaining about that very same law as a way to suppress what our employees are paid,” said the Governor’s budget director, Dan Villa. He says Governor Bullock is disappointed with the lower dollar amount in the pay plan and will be trying to convince the House to add more money back in as the body debates the Senate amendment.

State employees in 2009 volunteered to freeze their base pay as the Great Recession took hold. The 2011 Legislature rejected a smaller pay plan than that being considered now. Thus, base pay for employees have not gone up for more than four years. However, Republicans in favor of the smaller pay plan point out more than 60 percent of state employees have received other types of raises over the last few years.

House Committee approves disputed referendums

The House State Administration Committee

The House State Administration Committee

The House State Administration Committee has voted to move forward two referendum bills which caused a Democratic uproar recently in the Senate.

The two measures each passed the committee on party-line 12 to 7 votes. The first, SB405, close same-day voter registration in the state. The other, SB408, would put in place a top-two primary system. Being referendum bills, if they pass both legislative chambers with a simple majority, they would each be put before a general public vote in 2014. As such, the bills would bypass a potential veto of Democratic Governor Steve Bullock.

Using referendums has become a strategy of Republicans in the legislature the past two sessions. Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office says there are still 10 potential referendum bills alive in 2013 Session. Enough so, Senate Democrats attempted to employ a rarely-used parliamentary procedure to kill the bills. When Republican leadership ignored Democratic motions to use that procedure, the minority party rose to their feet, shouted and pounded their desks. The GOP-controlled Senate Rules Committee voted to say Republicans did not do anything wrong in the events, and that the votes taken during the tumult did in fact count.

Much of the testimony and debate in the State Administration Committee reflected earlier debates on standard, non-referendum bills which were very similar. On the idea of removing same-day voter registration, opponents argue it disenfranchises citizens who show up on Election Day unregistered. The bill would move the registration deadline to the Friday before Election Day and supporters call that a reasonable shift in order to shrink wait-times for voters and help over-burden election workers.

Many believe same-day voter registration tends to benefit Democratic candidates and issues as some left-leaning constituencies like college students, the poor, and Native Americans are more likely to not be properly registered when they show up to vote.

The bill to create a top-two primary would change the state’s primary election system to one type of ballot, rather than citizens receiving a Republican and Democratic primary and having to choose one to vote. The top-two candidates in each race would move forward to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Those in favor say it would free independent-minded Montanans from having to vote for one party in the primaries. Opponents say third-party candidates would get shut out of general elections.

Libertarian candidates have played a ‘spoiler’ role in several recent statewide elections, commonly seen to draw votes away from Republican candidates.

The two referendum bills now move to the House floor for debate.

Top state budget priorities set to become clearer this weekend

Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek)

Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek)

The Senate has its work cut out for it this weekend. The chamber’s Republicans and Democrats will be focused on pushing forward the state’s two-year, $9 billion budget. The main budget bill, HB2, unanimously passed the House last month.

“Almost all the work’s left to do yet,” said Senate Finance Chairman, Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek). Senators will be considering amendments to make room in the budget for other major proposals being considered by the wider legislature, such as a fix to the state’s pension debts, state employee pay raises, and funding for construction projects.

“It’s a complicated process to begin with,” Ripley said, “but…we have so many unusual circumstances that normally in a regular legislative session we wouldn’t have to deal with.” He’s referring to the large bills for fixing the pensions and state employee pay raises.

The Governor’s Office wants the Legislature to close on the budget with $300 million left in the bank, otherwise known as the ‘ending fund balance.’ But a balance sheet put out this week from the Legislative Fiscal Division shows the fund almost $95 million in the hole.

Senator Jon Sesso (D-Butte)

Senator Jon Sesso (D-Butte)

“It’s not as bad as the status report really looks,” explains Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, who is also on the Finance Committee. That balance sheet includes the costs of all bills still working their way through the Legislative process at this point. “If we went home today, passed House Bill 2… and didn’t pass any other bills, we’ve got $700 million in the bank.”

The question now is what’s going to make it in out of the major projects yet to pass. Sen. Ripley predicts most big projects will probably make it through, “but chopping away at the edges of them and whittling them down to where we can deal with ’em” rather than killing the ideas. He mentions the House removing large portions of money from Sen. Llew Jones’ (R-Conrad) major education funding legislation.
Senator Sesso looks to a number of major tax cut bills still in the works. “Some of the permanent tax relief is premature,” he said, saying those could put the budget out of structural balance in the long term. He prefers some one-time tax cut options. Democratic Governor Steve Bullock did not comment too much the budget, which he calls ‘a moving target.’ But, he echoed some of Sesso’s thoughts on tax cuts.
“What I said at the start is we’re gonna fund essential services and long-term liabilities before we start new programs or tax cuts,” Bullock said.
Although he does have veto power, it’s not Bullock’s call what to fund. That responsibility falls to the Republican-controlled legislature.

Desk pounding, gay rights, college v. golf and Medicaid expansion on “Capitol Talk”

Johnson, Mauk & Dennison 3SMALLTonight on “Capitol Talk”, our weekly legislative analysis program, News Director Sally Mauk talks with Lee newspaper reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison about lawmakers agreeing not to pound on their desks again, passionate debate on a bill to repeal a statute that criminalized gay sex, the fight over the new Missoula College, and new proposals for Medicaid expansion…

Should Montana be taxing required pollution control equipment?

Senator Bruce Tutvedt (R-Kalispell)

Senator Bruce Tutvedt (R-Kalispell)

Montana lawmakers may vote to remove the state’s tax on certain industrial pollution control equipment.

Senator Bruce Tutvedt (R-Kalispell) is sponsoring SB240, which removes taxes on new “air and water pollution control equipment” installed by companies like electric cooperatives, power plants and factories.

“I believe that we all want clean water and we all want clean air,” Tutvedt told the House Taxation Committee now considering his bill, “but I believe that we should not tax those things that actually deliver that.”
Ashgrove Cement’s Dick Johnson has been running the plant outside of Helena for the last 16 years. He says these required pollution control measures don’t positively contribute to a businesses bottom line. He says his plant has recently invested $14.5 million to build a new scrubber and baghouse. “This investment does not increase our production, it doesn’t increase our employment base, it doesn’t increase our quality…our operating costs are higher on top of the capital expense of $14.5 million for absolutely nothing but cleaner air.”
Montana Mining Association lobbyist Tom Hopgood has a problem with the government requiring companies have certain equipment and then taxing that very equipment. “We don’t believe that’s good public policy, we don’t believe it’s fair.”
Senator Tutvedt argues the government exempts other entities from taxation that are seen as a public good, like hospitals and churches.
Representative Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls)

Representative Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls)

Representative Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls) has some reservations about the proposal. He argues pollution control equipment still adds value to a company “and therefore, based on our tax system there is a tax rate that should be attached to it.” However, Jacobson does say he understands the argument behind dropping the tax, saying “we should incentivize good behavior and penalize bad behavior.”  Jacobson says he prefers the idea of lowering the pollution control equipment tax–but not necessarily eliminating it.

Another bill by Representative Mike Miller (R-Helmville) does gradually lower the pollution control equipment from its current three percent. That bill is waiting in the Senate.

Legislative analysts say pollution control equipment in Montana brings in about $21 million a year in total tax revenue to state, county, and local governments. Senator Tutvedt’s bill would only remove taxes on equipment purchased on or after the first of the year–so it wouldn’t immediately touch that $21 million. However, that revenue would decrease over time as older equipment drops in value and companies upgrade.

Tutvedt’s bill passed it’s initial vote in the Senate 40-9. It’s final vote was caught up in the April 5th Senate Democratic Protest. That vote was 28-0. No one spoke against the bill in the House Taxation Committee hearing.