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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Lawmakers Say Much Work Remains As Legislature Reaches Half-Way Point

Michael Wright - Community News Service

The Montana Legislature is at the half-way point of the scheduled 90-day session.

It’s more than just the numerical half-way point; it’s a key legislative deadline. All non-spending or non-tax bills had to meet the Day 45 deadline of being transmitted to the other chamber or they died.

Lawmakers will now have nearly a week off before they return to the Capitol to resume their work.

Yellowstone Public Radio’s Jackie Yamanaka talked to legislative leaders and the governor about the progress so far, and what lies ahead.

When asked what grade he would put down on the Republican led-legislative report card, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock says, incomplete.

"The good thing about an incomplete is if we get all our homework done, we turn things in we’re going to end up having a good, constructive session."

He says among the items awaiting action include the state’s budget for the coming two years, and his priorities, the Build Montana infrastructure bill, Medicaid expansion, and investing in early childhood education.

Credit Jackie Yamanaka - Yellowstone Public Radio
Some lawmakers remained at the Capitol to attend bill signing ceremonies in the Governor’s reception room following the conclusion of the House floor session Friday morning. State Senator Dee Brown, (R) Hungry Horse, shares a laugh with Gov. Steve Bullock. Because two co-sponsors of her Senate Bill 16 (Revise appointment process laws for commissioner of political practices) could not attend the official bill signing ceremony, Brown made arrangements for them to be there in absentia.

But that doesn’t necessarily mesh with the Republican-controlled Senate and House.

Senate President Debby Barrett says, "I think the infrastructure, the governor’s House Bill 5,  isn’t acceptable to us. But infrastructure is certainly a priority so we need to get an infrastructure plan that we can afford and support and get that to the people across the state of Montana. The Medicaid issue is still huge. We passed a Republican Medicaid reform and we know the governor’s Medicaid bill will be heard the 6th of March in committee."

As for the budget, Barrett says there’s disagreement over the governor’s insistence on a $300 million budget cushion.

"I think there will be a budget surplus but I don’t think it needs to be $300 million. That’s kind of an arbitrary number."

Bullock's response:  "$300 million being, if you look at a $5 billion biennial general fund budget, 6 percent isn’t asking for a heck of a lot."

Bullock defends the amount as conservative. He says it allowed Montana to weather the federal government shutdown in 2013 while other states were hard hit.

So when asked again if will veto the Republican’s across the board income tax cut, Bullock repeats he won’t announce what he will do with a bill sent to his desk until he has had a chance to read it.

Montana House Speaker Austin Knudsen (R)
Credit Montana Legislature
Montana House Speaker Austin Knudsen (R) HD34

House Speaker Austin Knudsen says House Bill 166, the income tax cut, is a priority bill for Republicans and that’s why the effort was made to get it to the governor early in the session.

"It flew through both the chambers," Knudsen said. "It was bumped up in the Senate which we’re happy about, but yeah I think sending it early definitely gives us an opportunity to look at it and see if we can get a veto override if in fact it is vetoed."

While there have been a few verbal scuffles, legislative leaders from both parties left town saying the first half of the session has been collegial, professional, and civil.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso said, "We once again have a majority of senators in the chamber who are interested in governing, interested in moving the right things forward. Hey I don’t mean to say that we haven’t had our differences. There’s been several 29-21 votes on things that are important to Democrats and Montanans."

But Sesso says important bills, like the Confederated Salish and Kootenai water compact, or requiring the disclosure of so called “dark money”, have gotten out of the Senate on bi-partisan votes.

Over in the House, Minority Leader Chuck Hunter agrees his chamber has also been professional this first half, but he’s wary as the big issues remain.

"I do believe though the majority party has been setting up a process for the bigger pieces that will move in the second half. The expansion, the budget, House Bill 5. They’ve been using rules as a way to block certain rules from taking place and blocking a majority of House members being able to vote on things up and down on the House floor. So while the first half has been good, I have some concerns about the second half and procedural tricks being used to prevent us from taking a good up or down vote on big items in the second half."

House Democrats and Republicans do have six so-called “silver bullets.” This rule gives the minority the ability to bring to the floor for debate six bills that have been voted down in committee. Those motions would require only a simple majority, an exception to the super-majority ordinarily needed to “blast” bills out of committee and to the floor for debate. It’s anticipated these are to help advance Bullock administration bills.

No “silver bullets” have been used yet, but then again the governor’s major proposals haven’t had a full committee hearing or action yet.

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