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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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.

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.

GOP hoping property tax cut measure can fit in budget

Representative Scott Reichner (R-Big Fork)

Representative Scott Reichner (R-Big Fork)

Republican lawmakers in the House are running out of time to pass their two priority tax-cut bills through the legislature. HB230, sponsored by Rep. Scott Reichner (R-Big Fork) and  HB472, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Bennett both need to clear out of a very busy House Appropriations Committee by Monday to realistically make the transmittal deadline for spending bills next Thursday.

The Appropriations Committee has already passed their $9 billion dollar two-year budget plan. At this point, the budget is about one percent over what the Governor requested and leaves an ending fund balance about $175 million less than the current balance.

Is there room for this property tax bill included in that?” Asked Reicher about his HB230. “We’ll see.” Reichner’s bill cuts property taxes in half–across the board. It would remove about $100 million in income from the state budget over the next two years.

“It rewards the property taxpayer from across the state of Montana,” Reichner said, “Whether you’re residential, ag, coal, mining, commercial–you’re getting a…fair flat tax reduction.”

Representative Bill McChesney (D-Miles City)

Representative Bill McChesney (D-Miles City)

Representative Bill McChesney (D-Miles City) sits on the House Appropriations committee. He says he generally thinks cutting property taxes is “the right thing to do” but in the case of Reichner’s bill, “that will saddle the state of Montana with potential negative consequences into the future.” McChesney says the budget that was unanimously passed out of the House does not have enough extra money to make that tax reduction sustainable.

Reichner says it depends how much money the Legislature wants to leave in the bank for the next session–that ending fund balance. As of Friday, using the current House Budget, that ending fund balance is $291.4million.

“We’ve done anywhere from $50 million to $500 million in ending fund balance, just depending on what the forecast for the next two years are gonna be,” Reichner said. By law, that ending fund balance cannot drop below $41.8 million for this budget.

Rep. Bennett’s bill would drop the business equipment tax by increasing the exemption to $250 thousand (read about what that means here.) That bill would lower the budget by $22.5 million.

Governor Bullock’s top tax proposal, a one-time $400 tax rebate to homeowners, failed to reach the House floor. As for the other tax-cut bills, Bullock says he will wait until they reach his desk before he makes any decisions. “All of the tax bills, the questions I ask (are) ‘Long term, what’s it do to the budget?’ and also ‘Is the benefit going to mainstreet Montana, or elsewhere?'”

Why Democrats didn’t fight for family planning money on the House floor

HollenbaughRepresentative Galen Hollenbaugh (D-Helena) said the shock of Tuesday’s unanimous House budget vote still hadn’t worn off even after the body took their final, and again unanimous, vote to send it to the Senate on Wednesday.

Members of both parties agreed not to bring up the dozens of proposed amendments to the $9 billion budget plan, letting discussions over those move to the Senate.

Supporters of some of those amendments outside of the legislature are crying foul, and one gaining much of the attention would have added back about $4.5 million dollars in federal money back into the budget to be used for family planning services. A Republican-dominated subcommittee removed that money earlier in the budget process because some of the money goes to support Planned Parenthood of Montana. Planned Parenthood of Montana does provide abortion services, but none of the federal money has been used to that end–in accordance with the law.

Democratic House members who spoke firmly and frequently in support of restoring those funds were silent when the chance came to bring that amendment to the budget debate Tuesday.

“We were disappointed at the failure of the House as a whole to at least have an open discussion,” said Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana Communications Director Lindsay Love. She calls the House budget vote the result of “backdoor dealings that have dominated the budget process this session.” She says the transparency of the process does matter.

“The transparency of the process does matter and Montanans who are watching or listening in from their home communities who care about these programs to be able to see what’s going on up front and out in the open I think is very important,” Love said.

Rep. Hollenbaugh says the budget vote was not crafted in backrooms, but through open discussion between the parties. He’s the Vice Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which puts together the main budget bill (HB2), and says he first pitched the idea of putting the budget through without amendments.

“We’re not letting the perfect get in the way of the good,” he said, “because this budget has an awful lot of very good items in it.” He says the risk for the Democratic side was if one amendment was brought up on the heavily Republican House Floor, all the other proposed amendments would probably follow suit–many of which would have cut resources.

“Rather than take that chance on the House Floor, The Appropriations Committee and leadership were looking at it and saying ‘We actually have a very good product here and we can be comfortable in sending that over to the Senate.”

“the good will…engendered by moving the budget in a unanimous fashion as we work with the Senate is to say look there’s lot’s of agreement,” Hollenbaugh said, and “that we would look for inclusions of very few things.”

And of course, he said, the family planning money is one of those very few things.

Public Defender’s Office: extra resources in House budget deal still not enough

The office of state attorneys who provide public legal services say the budget passed Tuesday by the Montana House of Representatives does not do enough to stem what they describe as over-burdensome workloads.

The surprise unanimous vote from the House to pass the state’s general fund budget bill (HB2) leaves a lot of uncertainty. As Matt Gouras of the Associated Press reports, “Both sides agreed to endorse the budget as-is, without long fights over dozens of proposed amendments.” Democrats, Gouras writes, “decided to support the spending plan anyway because it is a ‘great product’ overall.”

Those amendments still exist, though, and many will now surely be debated in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.

Senator Mitch Tropila (D-Great Falls) sits on that committee and says one of his top priorities is adding more resources to the state Public Defender’s office.”Whether or not (the budget) was a 100 to nothing vote or a 51 to 49 vote, I’ve got a job to do when House Bill 2 reaches the Senate on Thursday,” he said.

The Office of the State Public Defender has been operating since 2006, following a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union saying the previous system, run by counties, was not giving fair defense to those not able to afford their own.

“They were underfunded from day one,” said Representative Steve Gibson (R-East Helena), chair of the House subcommittee which put together the budget on the public defender’s office. Attorneys in the office have very high caseloads; at any given time an individual attorney may be working on hundreds of cases and they make far less than attorneys with similar experience working for other state agencies or the private sector.

Gibson points out the budget as passed by the House does add more resources to the Public Defende’rs Office, by about $5 million dollars. He says that funding adds eight new full-time employees to the office, all attorneys, to cut down on the workload. The current budget also includes raises for the public defenders–one of the only groups of state employees to have raises approved so far.

But Chief Public Defender Bill Hooks says his office requested 37 more full-time employees, which would include attorneys, support staff and investigators, “and we felt that was a number we really needed. That was a number we felt justified in asking for.”

Senator Tropila, wants to go even further, hiring 60 additional full-time employees to give the additional support staff he believes the office needs. He says he will work for that when the budget hits the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.

“Just to continue to throw (in) new FTEs is not going to solve the problem in my mind,” Gibson said. “It’s a structural problem, what types of cases should they have?”

Gibson said a bill is being considered which would call for a study of the Office of the Public Defender over the next legislative interim.

Committee to examine all amendments to state budget bill in one day

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip)

House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip)

The House Appropriations Committee has been looking into the state’s massive General Fund Budget Bill all week. Subcommittees have been looking at pieces of that bill for the last two months, like Education, Corrections, Health and Human Services, etc.

The full appropriations committee now needs to broadly consider the entire, $3.5 billion  House Bill 2 as well as any amendments before voting to send it to the House floor.

 And there are a lot of amendments being proposed to House Bill 2–about 100 of them as of Friday afternoon.These range from several being requested by the Montana University System to Title X funding for family planning.

In recent sessions, the appropriations committee would consider amendments at the same time they examined that section of the budget; i.e. examining amendments regarding K-12 schools when discussing education.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Representative Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip) is trying a different tactic this year. He is examining the sections of the budget piece by piece. For instance, the committee is looking at the education portion of the bill today. But instead of dealing with amendments during the time their respective section is being discussed–the committee will be looking at all the proposed amendments in one marathon meeting on Monday.

“It’s gonna be hectic,” Ankney said, “it’s gonna be mind-numbing, but Appropriations is mind-numbing so it’s just another day at the office.”
This hasn’t been done for awhile, but Ankney says the tactic has been used before by the committee. He says it allows for lawmakers to specifically focus on each section of the budget and hear from all the stakeholders without the emotion the involved  with debating and voting on amendments oftentimes determining the fate of millions of dollars of state funds. In theory, the lawmakers would be able to digest this information and then more efficiently move through the amendments Monday. Ankney does not believe this method will result in particular amendments not getting a fair shot.
The House Bill 2 budget is very close to the budget proposed by Governor Steve Bullock, with the Republican-crafted bill exceeding Bullock’s proposal by one percent. In an interview Friday, Bullock said some of his priorities were removed from the budget and he’d like to see those make it back in on Monday.
“Whatever the process they choose is less important to me than the end result,” Bullock said.
Bullock specifically advocated amendments to fund universal enrollment software for the Montana University System and money for certain veterans services on college campuses.

Appropriations Committee taking up University System Budget

The House Appropriations Committee is starting up its budget talks on the education portion of House Bill 2 on Friday. HB 2 is the official name for the state’s general fund budget bill.

The Montana Board of Regents is meeting in Helena this week and Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian briefed the board Thursday on legislative proceedings.

Commissioner Christian says he feels pretty good about the Montana University System budget ‘piece’ that has made its way to the full budget committee after first being approved by an education budget subcommittee. Although, he says “obviously there are some things on our list that didn’t get moved out (of the subcommittee) that he wished would have,” citing funding for new universal enrollment software and money for new campus veterans services.

Those two items are part of a list of over 15 amendments proposed to HB 2 asking for more education funds. Amendments to the budget will be discussed next week in committee. Christian says no amendments have been proposed to remove money from what’s allocated to the University already.

A top goal of the board of regents this budget cycle is to freeze tuition for the next two years for in-state students.The Regents have passed a resolution saying they will do that if the Legislature does two big things:

  • Approve extra money included in the budget to pay for the cost of inflation.
  • Approve pay increases for state employees, which includes the University System.

Christian says both of those two things seems to be moving forward, although he acknowledges there’s is still a lot of discussion left to go–especially on state employee pay.

The University System is also hoping for the passage of a major bonding bill which would allocate $100 million for building projects, mostly on state colleges.