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.

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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.

Montana Senate uproar over missing Democratic Senator, referendum bills

Senator Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) holds a copy of the Legislature's rulebook while Democrats pounded their desks and shouted in protest Friday

Senator Mike Phillips (D-Bozeman) holds a copy of the Legislature’s rulebook while Democrats pounded their desks and shouted in protest Friday

Decorum in The Montana State Senate dissolved into an uproar Friday over a missing Democratic Senator.  Republicans saw the absence of Sen. Shannon Augare as the use of an obscure parliamentary procedure by the Democrats to stall floor action and kill some GOP-backed bills. The decision of Republican leadership to take votes on the bills anyway resulted in the Democratic minority leaping to their feet, shouting loud objections and pounding on their desks with anything from glass mugs to copies of the Montana Constitution.

“I don’t want to characterize what they did as a Hail Mary or failed, but we did what we had to do and it’s done,” said Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich about passing the bills which, if also passed by the House, will put measures on the 2014 ballot asking to remove the state’s same-day voter registration practice and put in place a new primary election system that only allows the two political parties receiving the most votes move forward to the general election.

Any ballot-measure bills which pass the Montana Legislature with a simple majority of both chambers move right to a public vote—bypassing the governor’s office. Historically, this was rarely utilized, but that’s changed the last couple years. The majority Republicans in both chambers have been using the tactic more often as a way to get certain measures past the veto of the state’s Democratic Governor.

“Just as they used the rules to their advantage to try to move those referenda forward, we were gonna use the rules to our advantage to stop that nonsense in its tracks” said Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Jon Sesso. “Enough is enough with this stuff.”

Friday was the deadline for referendum bills to transfer over to the opposite chamber from where they started. In a caucus meeting, Democrats discussed using a seldom-employed procedure known as a ‘call of the Senate’ to find Senator Augare, who had gone missing. Using that procedure would halt action on any bills until Augare was found. If the floor was halted for the remainder of the day, the bills objected to by the Democrats would not make the deadline and die for this year’s legislative session.

Meanwhile, Republicans were meeting too, including with legislative legal staff, and decided they could take the votes before recognizing the Democrat’s motion to call the Senate. Senator Wittich said the rules exist to keep the chamber in order so “it was important that we do the people’s business and transfer those bills to the House in time.”

“I’m saddened by what we saw today—it’s worse than Washington, D.C.” said Governor Steve Bullock. “I’m not embarrassed by men and women demanding a right to speak—I’m disappointed by those who denied it.”

Democrats say the votes taken on the referendum bills should not count because the party’s objection to the votes and their motion to call the Senate were not recognized by Republican Senate President Jeff Essmann.

The story in the Senate so far this session has been over a split in the body’s GOP caucus between conservatives and more moderate Republicans who have been siding with Democrats on some key issues including education funding and Medicaid Expansion. Now, some Republicans are saying the actions of Democrats have re-unified the party.

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.

2013 Montana Legislature chooses leadership

The lawmakers are back in town.

Members of the 2013 Legislature arrived in the capitol this week.

Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce tells us the parties have chosen their leadership in the Senate and House of Representatives.

And here’s the Associated Press story on the same topic by Matt Gouras:

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana legislators are picking new leaders in advance of the 2013 Legislature.

Republicans still control both chambers following last week’s elections.

In the Senate, Republicans ousted Senate President Jim Peterson of Buffalo and rejected current Speaker Pro Tempore Bruce Tutvedt’s bid for majority leader.

The GOP instead chose Sen. Jeff Essmann of Billings as their nominee for Senate president, Art Wittich of Bozeman as majority leader and Debbie Barrett of Dillon as speaker pro tempore.

Senate Democrats picked Jon Sesso as their new minority leader.

Republicans chose Mark Blasdel of Somers to fill a vacant House speaker’s post. Gordon Vance of Billings will be the new majority leader and Austin Knudsen of Culbertson was picked as speaker pro tempore.

House Democrats elected Chuck Hunter of Helena minority leader.