Wolf Point Herald

It’s The Final Countdown Of The 2013 Montana Legislature

Montana’s 2013 Legislature is scrambling to cut final deals on spending and tax cuts that could allow it to adjourn by the week’s end.
The House and Senate have agreed on a state budget that provides $9 billion for state agencies and programs over the next two years.
That package is headed to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk, though he told reporters Friday that House Bill 2 still needs work. He said correctional facilities need more money, as do public safety and child protective services.
“We have an overall package of things that ought to be changed,” he said.
Besides spending, the final week’s negotiations are expected to focus on how much tax relief to offer Montanans and how much money state government should save to deal with unforeseen problems that develop over the next two years.
The governor is expected to play a major role in this week’s decisions. Other items awaiting his signature are bills to help solve a projected deficit in state pension funds and legislation to finance construction of new buildings and repairs on state college campuses.
Meanwhile, here’s a look back at what lawmakers did during week 15 at the Capitol:
K-12 Funding
The session’s major school funding bill is ready for the governor’s signature.
Senate Bill 175’s price tag changed numerous times throughout the session, but both chambers agreed last week to send more than $50 million in new revenue to schools. They also restored a number of provisions Republicans had previously slashed from the measure.
“I am pleased the entire education community never wavered,” said Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT teachers’ union. “I am happy with the end result. It doesn’t matter what happened in the middle.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, worked with Feaver and others in the education community for the past two years to craft a sweeping plan to reform education funding.
Although the bill originally proposed to send well over $100 million to schools, the final version does the following with a smaller price tag. Among other things, the bill would:
•Freeze local school property taxes for the next two years.
•Increase the basis state entitlement districts receive over the next two years.
•Allow schools in oil- and gas-producing areas to keep up to 130 percent of their maximum budgets in production-tax revenue.
•Send additional money to schools that see significant enrollment increases.
Health Care
The Legislature killed Medicaid expansion last week and an effort to accept federal money to allow Montanans to purchase private insurance on the federal insurance exchange appears unlikely to pass.
A House committee voted down a plan to extend Medicaid coverage to 70,000 uninsured Montanans under the federal Affordable Care Act.
However, the Senate amended and passed the so-called “GOP alternative” bill. A group of legislators from both parties worked on changes to HB 623. The new version would offer federal Medicaid money to low-income Montanans, who could then purchase coverage on an online insurance marketplace.
The bill passed the Senate but when it reached the House, GOP leaders referred it to a committee that will likely block its passage for the remainder of the session. Democrats objected, so the House voted on whether to refer the bill. One Democrat accidentally voted with a majority of Republicans, resulting in a 50-50 tie. That wasn’t enough to block the motion, so the bill was referred to the House Human Services Committee.
After the floor session, Gov. Steve Bullock said he was disappointed that procedural tricks and threats of dark money led to the bills’ demise.
“The real winners are the residents of New Jersey and Arizona who will now get to use Montana taxpayer dollars to improve the care of people in their states, while we get nothing,” he said.
Bullock said he would continue fighting to expand health coverage and stressed that options to revive the bills remain on the table, despite last week’s votes.
State Employee Pay
Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a plan to increase state employees’ salaries for the first time in more than four years.
After a 68-32 vote in the House last week, HB 13 is headed to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk. The bill provides $114 million to increase pay for state government workers. It would be up to the executive branch to figure out how to disburse that money to employees.
That’s less money overall than the governor had proposed at the session’s start. However, Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, said on average, each worker will see a $1,393 raise in 2014 and a $1,442 raise in 2015.
Taxes
Lawmakers continue to negotiate proposals to lower and simplify state taxes.
While House-Senate conference committees iron out the details on bills to change Montana’s business equipment and income taxes, Republicans in the House gave an initial endorsement to a bill that offers one-time income tax relief.
SB 394, sponsored by Sen. Art Wittich, R-Boze-man, sends $47 million back to taxpayers – most of which will go to the wealthy.
At his weekly press conference, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said he will consider proposals to cut taxes, but will have to weigh them against other spending items.
“I said coming in that I would like to provide some tax cuts for Montana’s businesses, and I am still interested in doing so,” he said.
Gay Rights
People crowded into the Capitol Rotunda last week to watch Gov. Steve Bullock sign a bill striking a law from the books that bans sex between two people of the same gender.
“I am not going to speak too long because frankly, the longer I talk, the longer this unconstitutional and embarrassing law continues to stay on our books,” Bullock told an audience, who erupted in cheers.
Although the Montana Supreme Court deemed the law unconstitutional in 1997, it remained in the state code.
(Editor’s Note: Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at 425-466-6633 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow at amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Montana State Capitol.)