HELENA- Majority Republicans on Tuesday night unveiled their own fix for the state’s $227 million budget hole – including money from a private prison account and other transfers that could close the gap without raising taxes.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said the plan rests primarily on a pair of bills that would be heard late Tuesday in committee and possibly acted on – although final resolution won’t occur until at least Wednesday.

“The Legislature is doing an awesome job to put together the pieces to solve this budget,” Thomas told MTN News Monday evening.

Minority Democrats and Gov. Steve Bullock’s office said late Monday they’d become aware of the plan, but had no immediate comment.

Story continues below

Bullock took care of part of the budget shortfall himself Tuesday, announcing he would put into place about $76 million in spending cuts during the current two-year budget period.

The two major bills, sponsored by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, and Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, would fill much of the remaining budget hole with the following elements:

  • Accepting $15 million from an account controlled by CoreCivic, the owner of the state’s only private prison, in Shelby.
  • Accepting any money from that account over $15 million, and using it to offset any budget cuts for “essential services.”

CoreCivic has about $32 million of state money in account, set aside for purchase of the private prison. However, the company has said it will release the money back to the state if the company gets an extension on its contract to operate the prison. Its current contract expires in 2019.

  • Transferring money from multiple accounts into the state treasury. Some of the transfers had been identified earlier by Bullock, but the main transfer bill – House Bill 6 – includes additional money, beyond the governor’s proposed $77 million.

The exact amount of the transfers wasn’t immediately clear.

  • Reducing the legally required amount of money needed as a year-end cushion for the state budget – if certain tax or fee bills don’t pass the special session.

Thomas and Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, said Republicans also plan to make Bullock’s proposed spending cuts permanent – but to give him the ability to mitigate those cuts if state tax revenue comes in higher than expected in the coming year-and-a-half.

Sales and Thomas said legislative Republicans, who control majorities in both houses of the Legislature, have drawn on the ideas of many GOP members for the plan.

“It’s been spread across the board,” Sales said. “It’s a good collaborative effort.”

The total amount of the package wasn’t known late Monday.

But if it still falls short of the needed $227 million, the last remaining pieces could be one of the tax-increase bills before the Legislature or a lowering of the year-end balance, Sales said.