Heavy lifting awaits MT lawmakers after mid-point break

Posted at 5:34 PM, Mar 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-01 20:13:07-05

HELENA – Montana lawmakers wrapped up the first half of the 2019 Legislature Friday morning, as the House took its final votes before a week-long break – but much work remains on big issues like the state budget, Medicaid expansion and infrastructure spending.

“The first 45 days are just basically setting up for the second 45,” Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman, told MTN News this week. “So all the heavy lifting is yet to come.”

Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman

The second half starts next Thursday, when the House Appropriations Committee opens its multi-day session of debating and voting on House Bill 2, the major spending bill for state government.

Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, told reporters on Thursday that the present form of HB2 lacks many items he considers vital for the state, such as money for a statewide preschool program, additional higher-ed spending, Medicaid-expansion money and enough of a reserve to weather any future revenue shortfalls.

He also revisited what’s likely to be one of the biggest battles of the session, between himself and the Republican majority: Whether any new taxes are needed to balance the budget.

Gov. Steve Bullock

Bullock and his fellow Democrats believe more money is needed. He said bills containing his proposed tax increases on tobacco, liquor, lodging and investment advisers will be introduced this month, and Democrats said this week they hope Republicans won’t reject them out of hand.

“I think the `no new taxes’ (pledge) is just a ridiculous sound bite and it’s not based in reality or even what our constituents want,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, who’s sponsoring the Democrats’ Medicaid expansion bill. “We need to responsibly fund services and education, and if that means looking at taxes that need to be updated or restored, we should do that.”

Sales said Republicans simply don’t believe that new taxes are needed and that the budget can be crafted without them, if lawmakers resist approving “a bunch of new proposals.”

Republican state Rep. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls is expected to introduce the GOP’s Medicaid-expansion proposal next week.

Medicaid expansion, enacted in 2015 but set to expire this June, provides government-funded health care for about 95,000 low-income adults in Montana. The federal government funds 90 percent of its costs, but Montana must come up with the approximate $60 million a year state share.

Republicans also are working on their own versions of a state preschool program, that will compete with Bullock’s $22 million plan, and a new bill to borrow money to finance major infrastructure projects. GOP leaders have said their infrastructure bonding bill will include $50 million to $100 million of projects; Bullock’s proposal is at $160 million.

While the two parties remain at odds over many of the big-money issues, both pointed to some major accomplishments in the first half of the session.

A $77 million, two-year increase in state funding for public schools has already passed and was signed into law by Bullock this week, and a 50-cent-an-hour pay raise for state employees, both this year and next, is headed to the governor’s desk.

Caferro also said a bipartisan group of lawmakers has worked to restore much of the funding that was cut from community-based human service programs in the past year.

Sales also mentioned several other priorities that Republicans will be presenting or carrying forward the second half of the session: Bills to reduce the cost of health insurance and prescription drugs, a proposal to increase access to state and federal lands through private property, and a bill that could prolong the life of coal-fired power plants at Colstrip.

“I think there is an opportunity for the state to help a regulated utility like NorthWestern (Energy) to acquire those assets,” he said. “In the long run, I think it could be very, very good for the citizens of Montana. … It’s a huge part of our economy.”