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Gov Calls For Special Legislative Session To Balance State Budget

Montana Capitol.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio
Montana Capitol.

Governor Steve Bullock Monday called for a special legislative session to convene later this month to balance the state's budget. Here's Bullock at a press conference Monday afternoon:

"I’m calling the Legislature back to Helena for a special session to begin with hearings convening next Monday, November 13, and for the full body to convene Tuesday the 14th at noon."

Bullock says he’s been negotiating with leaders of the Republican majority in both houses of the Legislature, and that they have outlined a blueprint for upcoming special session work.

But Republican Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen says that while that framework is agreed upon by some members of the conservative party, that doesn’t mean every Republican is on board.

"That’s just not the case. And we've told that to the governor's office. Our caucus doesn't operate that way," Knudsen says.

The state budget passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor this spring tumbled out of balance over the summer. After blowing past budget deficit safeguards put in place this year, expectations of state revenue fell so far below initial projections that in late August state agencies began preparing for 10 percent budget cuts.

The governor is authorized to make cuts of up to 10 percent without legislative approval, or he can call them back for a special session.

The full depth of those cuts would reduce state general fund spending by $227 million. Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle agreed with Bullock that those cuts, in full, would be devastating, especially to Montanans who rely on services in the state’s health department.

Governor Steve Bullock in Helena, MT November 6, 2017 calls for a special legislative session to balance the budget to convene later this month.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
Governor Steve Bullock in Helena, MT November 6, 2017 calls for a special legislative session to balance the budget to convene later this month.

Bullock's agenda for a special session aims to prevent most of those cuts from happening. He proposes a combination of temporary new taxes, smaller budget cuts, and transfers within state government.

The call for a special session limits what lawmakers can do once they're in Helena. However, if a majority of lawmakers agree, they can vote to expand the scope of the special session beyond Governor Bullock's original intent.

"I think it's certainly a possibility," says Speaker Knudsen.

The governor's proposal includes over $76 million in cuts, $75 million in new revenue through tax increases, and over $76 million in legislative budget adjustments and transfers.

While there is a general framework agreed on, Speaker Knudsen says  there is no deal that can give a clear predictable  picture for what the upcoming special session will look like.

Republican Senator Llew Jones from Conrad generally agrees with that outline for a special session agenda. But he says while there are several parts of that plan he expects the conservative majority to push back against the governor.

"There is significant angst with the section that is the temporary taxes for fire. Significant angst," Jones says.

Many members of the Republican Party have expressed no interest in raising taxes, which represents nearly a third of the governor’s plan to balance the budget. 

Republican leaders have said their main priority in a special session is to replenish the state's drained  firefighting fund.

Both Republicans and Democrats have said they don't want a special session to drag on for more than a handful of days.

While the special session plan outlined by Governor Bullock may not have every lawmaker's full support,  he says it should have enough support to patch the budget quickly.

"While not anybody is pleased or felt like they get everything they hoped for out of it, it is a much more responsible path, and that is what Montanans expect."

The governor's office has put a deadline to solve its budget crisis at the end of the month, in order to afford $120 million in payments to public schools. 

Under current projections, those end of November school payments will dip the state than $30 million into the red.

However, Republicans point to a report from nonpartisan legislative researchers that says fund transfers within government can float the state through that deadline without legislative help or a special session.

See the governor's outline for the special session.

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