MT Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman

Legislative Republicans plan to expand next week’s special session agenda, to include more options to fill Montana’s $227 million budget hole, MTN News has learned – including $32 million from an account controlled by the owner of the private prison in Shelby.

Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, also told MTN News Wednesday that other items in the expanded agenda will be lowering the required year-end balance of the state treasury and transferring more money out of the state employees’ health plan.

“Before I raise someone else’s taxes, or make cuts to health and human services, I don’t know why we wouldn’t look at making sure we can access that money, without putting that (health) fund under stress,” he said in an interview.

On Monday, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, ordered the Legislature into special session starting next Tuesday, to consider a narrow set of proposals to balance the budget.

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The proposals include $76.5 million in budget transfers and $75 million from temporary tax increases, which need legislative approval. He also promised to order about $75 million in spending cuts.

But a majority of all 150 lawmakers can vote to expand the agenda – and Sales said Republicans plan to do that, using their majority muscle. They control majorities in both houses of the Legislature, or 91 total votes.

“I think the majority of our (Republican members) will agree that we just need some additional ideas out there in order to balance the budget,” Sales said. “This is going to give us the opportunity to work with Democrats and, hopefully the governor’s office, to explore more of these ideas in full.”

GOP leaders are drafting a proposed expansion with nine new items, including:

  • Lowering the legally required amount of money that must be left in the state treasury at the end of the current two-year budget period, from 5 percent of overall spending to 2 percent. The change would save the state as much as $120 million.
  • Using $32 million from a fund set up to help the state buy the privately run prison at Shelby. The owner of the prison – CoreCivic – controls the money, but has offered to give it to the state — if the state agrees to extend the company’s contract, for another 10 years.
  • Transferring up to $30 million from the state employees’ health insurance fund, which Sales said is in good financial condition. Bullock had proposed taking about $10 million from the fund.
  • Requiring the governor to order the $75 million in spending cuts while the Legislature is in session next week. Sales said lawmakers don’t want to make budget decisions before the spending cuts are enforced.
  • Extending the health-insurance premium tax to two companies that don’t currently pay it: PacificSource and the Montana Health Co-op.

Once a majority of lawmakers agree to the expansion, bills to accomplish those goals can be introduced.

Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel said Wednesday the governor is committed to balancing the budget “in a responsible way,” and will work with any lawmakers who are “less interested in playing politics and more interested in finding solutions.”

Republicans leaders have said they’re not very interested in raising taxes to help balance the budget, even if those increases are temporary.

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