HELENA – As the 2017 Legislature enters what could be its last week, majority Republicans in the Montana House took the unusual step Thursday of accepting a final version of the session’s major budget bill, without sending it to a conference committee for final tweaks.
“This is a great House Bill 2; we need to pass it,” House Speaker Austin Knudsen of Culbertson told fellow Republicans minutes before the vote. “This is the tightest House Bill 2 I’ve seen in four sessions.”
The House voted 60-40 to accept the current version of HB2, setting up one last House vote Friday before HB2 advances to the desk of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
But Bullock told reporters later Thursday he won’t consider signing HB2 until a number of related bills reach his desk and he has a better idea of the state’s complete two-year budget.
“There are a number of pieces still moving, that I need to look at how it all fleshes out, before I draw any lines in the sand,” he said.
Those pieces include bills to increase state fuel taxes and motor-vehicle fees, other tax revisions, and several “companion bills” that implement portions of the $10 billion, two-year state budget.
“We’ve been having constructive conversations with Democrats and Republicans to try to say, `How do we get out of here with a budget that funds essential services, doesn’t spend more than it brings in, and leaves me with a degree of flexibility so I’m not picking up the pieces and coming back into session,’” the governor said.
Also in the mix is a bill that would issue new state debt to finance a multimillion-dollar range of additional sewer, water, school and public building projects across the state.
Two such measures remain stalled in the House, needing a two-thirds majority to emerge.
“I certainly hope that one of them gets to my desk,” Bullock said.
The 2017 Legislature is scheduled to end May 1, but lawmakers have said they hope to wrap up the session a few days early, perhaps by the middle of next week.
Yet they can’t adjourn until passing a state budget.
The House took a big step toward that end Thursday, voting 60-40 to endorse HB2, the session’s major spending bill.
At the end of a session, HB2 usually goes to a joint House-Senate conference committee, to work out a compromise somewhere between what’s been passed by the House and Senate.
But GOP House leaders said Thursday they had worked closely with members of the Senate – also controlled by Republicans – to craft a version of HB2 that they found acceptable.
“They made very few substantive changes (in the Senate),” Knudsen said. “For the most part, House Bill 2 came back largely in the shape that we sent it over.”
The $10.3 billion budget contained within HB2 and some other measures is only slightly higher than the state’s current two-year budget, reflecting a slowdown in state revenue that called for a tight rein on any new spending.
All but one of the House’s 41 Democrats voted against HB2 on Thursday, however, saying it falls short of what’s needed to fund education, human services and other essential services for Montana.
House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, scolded Republicans Thursday for refusing to consider raising taxes on “offshore and multinational out-of-state corporations” or Montana millionaires, to help build a better budget.
“It was decided that that was not a good idea, so we have a very tight budget,” she said. “We have a budget where we’ve had to make some really hard decisions – decisions that are going to hurt working folks in this state.”
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said she felt HB2 addresses the state’s major needs, without going too far – or falling too short.
“Some say we didn’t spend enough,” she said. “Others are saying we didn’t cut enough.”