After weeks of build-up, a special legislative session began Tuesday afternoon in Helena with the intent of balancing the state budget. But after a day of hearings yesterday, and political maneuvering today, it’s still unknown how that will happen. Governor Steve Bullock’s original outline for how to plug the $227 million hole in the state budget was quickly expanded by the Republican majority.
The Montana House and Senate are both in session at this hour. A little earlier, our Capitol Reporter Corin Cates-Carney caught us up.
Eric Whitney: Yesterday, lawmakers started laying the groundwork for Governor Bullock’s plan to balance the state budget, using a combination of cuts, fund transfers and temporary tax increases. They heard several bills — most of which were sponsored by Republicans at Bullock’s request, right?
Corin Cates-Carney: Yes, among the bills they heard yesterday were measures that raise money by auctioning off some liquor licenses, and putting a new fee on some income generated by the state workers’ comp insurance fund. They also heard proposals to raise taxes on rental cars and hotel rooms.
EW: And then today, Republicans moved to expand the scope of the special session beyond what Governor Bullock called for?
CCC: That’s right. Now, the roadmap to a balanced budget is much larger, and not entirely clear.
In the hearings yesterday, the governor’s proposals were handcuffed by Republicans bringing up alternative solutions. This afternoon, the conservative majority in both the House and Senate muscled those additional issues into what lawmakers must consider when looking at options to balance the budget.
EW: So what are these options that Republicans are bringing into the budget talks?
CCC: Republicans have asked their staff to start drafting up a handful of bills. One would required furloughs of state employees.
EW: For how long?
CCC: That’s not exactly clear yet. What is clear is that it would apply to state employees making more than $50,000. It would require a 3 percent reduction in personal services for each state employer of state employees funded through the general fund. It's unclear how many people that would impact.
Another Republican bill would transfer money in the state general fund that currently goes to the Montana Developmental Center, and instead use it to fill the state’s drained fire fund.
EW: Other legislation under consideration would repeal certain individual and corporate income tax credits.
CCC: The bill is there and it’s in draft form, but its impact is still unknown at the moment. A lot of the details of these proposals are still being worked out. The work going on during this special session is very quick. And that comes with fewer details about proposed litigation than we might get during a regular session.
EW: There’s been a lot of traffic on social media today about lawmakers taking up transgender issues. What’s that about? How does that relate to the state budget?
CCC: A proposal by Albert Olszewski and Dennis Lenz could block the state health department from implementing a new rule that would make it easier for people, specifically transgender people, to change their gender designation on a birth certificate. Republicans argue blocking this change at this time this could save state millions of dollars in updating forms and software. There has been no public fiscal note released giving evidence to support or dismiss that claim.
A spokesperson with the state health department says this change has had no fiscal impact on the state. I spoke with the sponsor of that bill to block this rule change shortly after he brought it on the house floor, and he said this was all about saving money and giving the legislature a say in this policy change. Democrats are labeling this irrelevant to their goal of trying to balance the budget, and an attack on the rights of transgender people.
EW: Has the governor responded to Republicans expanding the special session?
CCC: The governor’s office implemented $76 million in cuts today. This was something that Republicans had been calling for for weeks. They wanted a commitment from the governor that if they came in to work in a special session, that Bullock would make cuts.
EW: So those cuts are now moved from the idea phase to being implemented; can you tell us anything about which programs are facing these cuts?
CCC: These cuts will reduce state spending in the health department by about $49 million, about four and half percent of the agencies budget. That’s certainly the largest cut, in terms of dollar figures. Higher education is getting a one percent cut, or about four and a half million dollars. The Department of Corrections and the Department of Justice are also losing about four and a half million dollars. These avoid some of the cuts we heard so much public testimony about leading up to the special session, but their impacts will still be felt around the state.
EW: What are lawmakers doing as we speak, in the House and Senate floor sessions that started at 4 p.m. today?
CCC: Lawmakers are debating a bill that could determine how permanent the governor’s cuts are, and if the lawmakers will change their cap on how much the government can spend to line up with those cuts. In other words, if unexpected revenue comes in, will the governor be allowed to add money to the agencies he’s cut. Debate on that was heated in committee, and that will likely continue as it moves through the house chambers. Debate on all of the budget balancing options on the table is expected to extend well into the evening and into tonight.
EW: And at this point, no one knows how long the special session will last, right?
CCC: That’s right. Lawmakers can work into the night, into the morning, and it is expected that this will wrap up this week, but on a day-to-day basis, this could go on for a long time.
EW: Corin Cates-Carney, thanks very much.
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