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State Budget Top Priority For Montana Lawmakers Going Into 2017 Session

Montana Legislature.
Corin Cates-Carney
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Montana lawmakers break for lunch after selecting their 2017 leadership at the Capitol in Helena, Nov 14, 2016.

The state budget is the top priority for lawmakers and the governor ahead of the 2017 legislative session that convenes January 2. Yellowstone Public Radio’s Jackie Yamanaka and MTPR’s Capitol Reporter Corin Cates-Carney talked to the newly elected legislative leaders and the governor about their priorities going into the 2017 session.

Republican will keep their majorities in both the state House and Senate following last week’s general election. Senate President-elect Scott Sales of Bozeman says their priority going into the legislative session remains the state budget.

"Money is really the lion’s share of what happens up here," says Sales.

State Senator Scott Sales (R) SD-35.
Credit courtesy Montana Legislature
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State Senator Scott Sales (R) SD-35.

He says the revenue projections indicate there won’t be a lot of money left for new projects, and maybe not for existing programs. Sales says because of that, it’s premature to talk about other Republican Senate priorities at this point.

Still, there’s an appetite for infrastructure funding, says House Speaker Austin Knudsen, who was re-elected to the post.

"As far as the infrastructure goes, I don’t think you’re going to find a legislator in this building who doesn’t want to do some infrastructure funding," Knudsen says. "The hurdle has always been, as you know, what is infrastructure. How do we define that? Is that water? Is it sewer? Is it roads, bridges or is it a building in Helena or a gym in Bozeman?"

It’s a reference to a spat in 2015 over funding to remodel and expand the Montana Historical Society and Romney Gymnasium at Montana State University.

Republican leaders say the question of how infrastructure projects will be funded remains. Knudsen says he’s heard talk of some bonding, cash on hand, or even talk about raising the gas tax. He expects the latter would be a tough pull.

Democrats elected Jenny Eck from Missoula and Jon Sesso from Butte as their minority leaders in the legislative chambers.

The Democratic minority agrees that infrastructure needs to be a top priority this session.

House Minority Leader Jenny Eck says lawmakers had two more years to realize the growing need for maintenance on state roads, water systems and schools. She says a state infrastructure bill could be worked into the state’s current budget, or:

"Bonding is on the table for us, Eck says. "We see it as a good way for us to invest in the future of this state, responsibly, with low interest rates."

Eck says there is no downside to using bonds as a funding source for infrastructure, but the Republican majority rejected the idea of bonds in the 2015 session.

She says Democrats will have to wait and see any proposed legislation before deciding if lawmakers should focus infrastructure spending in specific areas, instead of passing a statewide bill.

"We have historically said that we don’t want to divide communities against each other, we want to make sure all communities are taken care of and nobody is left out," Eck says.

She also says dividing the state’s infrastructure spending could lose votes and the support of lawmakers if their district was left out.

House Democratic leadership meets at the Capitol in Helena after electing leaders, Nov. 14, 2016.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
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House Democratic leadership meets at the Capitol in Helena after electing leaders, Nov. 14, 2016.

Equal pay for equal work is also on the list of priorities for Democratic leaders and the governor, after the Montana Paycheck Fairness Act was killed by lawmakers in the last session.

Eck describes Democrats playing the role of a defensive line this year, after Republicans took most of the victories on Election Day, nationally and in Montana.

Newly elected Minority Caucus Chair Tom Woods says term limits prevent a depth of institutional  knowledge in state legislators, so he’s going focus on educating new lawmakers on state funding.

"Appropriations is a great big black box to most of us," says Woods, "and that is not acceptable. Our budget reflects our priorities. And as caucus chair I want to shed more light on the veto pit down here."

Although Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock narrowly retained his seat in Montana's executive branch and still holds the power of veto. And Republicans don’t have enough votes in their caucus to override a veto.

Governor Steve Bullock expects over the next month and a half, he and his administration will talk with legislators in hopes of finding common ground on priorities going into the 2017 session.

Bullock says his number one priority remains the same:

"That we’re not going to spend more than we bring in. We’re going to leave money in the bank. I think that’s a Montana value."

Other Bullock administration priorities will be revealed Tuesday morning when he releases his budget proposal.

That should give lawmakers something more tangible to work with as they outline their goals for coming months.

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