HELENA — The Montana Legislature’s 68th session is moving into its final week, with one big responsibility still to complete: approving the state budget for the next two years.
On Thursday, the Senate gave its final approval to House Bill 2, the main budget bill, which sets out more than $14 billion in state spending over the coming biennium.
“Our final legislative budget is a good conservative budget that we can all be proud of, from east to west, from urban and rural,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, during a Senate floor debate on the bill Monday.
Esp chaired the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, which did extensive work on HB 2 in recent weeks. He told MTN the committee mostly made changes “on the margins” of the budget.
More amendments came on the Senate floor – unlike the debate on the House floor, when every proposed change failed on a near party-line vote.
The biggest change in the Senate was adding another $15 million in state funds to further increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for health care and long-term care providers. That would also bring in another $29.5 million in federal special revenue. It’s the latest step in what has been one of the main topics of discussion this session.
Since HB 2 was amended in the Senate, it will now return to the House for consideration. If representatives accept the Senate’s changes, the bill will go directly to Gov. Greg Gianforte for a signature. If the House rejects the amendments, a conference committee will have to be appointed to hammer out a final version of the bill. That could push the last votes on HB 2 closer to the end of next week.
The Montana Constitution gives the Legislature a maximum of 90 working days for each session. Friday marked Day 84, and all business will have to be completed by Day 90 – next Friday, May 5.
This week on Face the State, House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, told MTN’s Augusta McDonnell that HB 2 would be back up for consideration in the House early next week. He said he thought it was “50-50” whether it would go to conference committee.
“That probably depends a lot on this unprecedented surplus that Montana has, and this one-time-only spending,” he said. “A lot of legislators had great ideas on how to spend that OTO money, and they're still floating out there. So it'll depend on, I think, which kind of faction or group pushing which idea has their budget surplus one-time-only spending bills cross the finish line, as to what's going to happen with House Bill 2.”
One other change the Senate made to HB 2 was removing $7.9 million that would be used over the next two years to move up to 120 state inmates to a private prison facility in Arizona – operated by CoreCivic, the company that runs the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby. That contract was proposed as a way to address overcrowding in Montana detention facilities.
However, that funding for was added to another bill, House Bill 817, with the specific references to CoreCivic and Arizona removed. The bill now simply says the money will be used to “to contract for 120 prison beds.” HB 817 passed the Senate Friday on a 30-18 vote.