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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Special Session Preview With Capitol Reporter Chuck Johnson

Montana House of Representatives.
Montana Public Radio
Montana House of Representatives.

Monday, Governor Steve Bullock called lawmakers back to Helena for a special legislative session. The state is facing a $200 million budget shortfall. The governor has proposed filling the budget gap with a combination of cuts to state agencies and tax increases. Veteran statehouse reporter Chuck Johnson joins MTPR's Corin Cates-Carney with insight on what to expect in the special legislative session.

Corin Cates-Carney: The last special legislative session was called in 2007. For those who might not know, what is a special session, and how might it be different from the regular sessions that happen every other year?

Chuck Johnson: Special sessions are called to deal with emergencies or special issues that come up. A lot of them have been called, in fact, because of budget issues — the revenues aren't coming in as anticipated -- often because of natural resource prices or recessions, that sort of thing.

CCC: Gov. Bullock's call for a special aims to avoid the 10 percent cuts that lawmakers and the governor agreed would significantly hurt vulnerable populations in Montana. Bullock's plan, released Monday calls for $75 million in cuts to government instead of the previously provided $227 million. Chuck, what's the governor's plan here?

CJ: He's come up with a plan that would raise about $225 or $226 million by three ways; one would be cuts; one would be revenue enhancers, primarily through raising the state tax on hotel and motel beds when people rent a room, and also rental cars,and then charging a fee for the money that the state workers compensation fund has for the largest customers; and then the other third is transfers from different funds. So it's a combo of all of those things.

CCC: So, Bullock's plan leans on a basic rule of thirds premise: a third in cuts, a third in tax increases, and a third in government transfers. Does the Legislature need to follow that guide?

CJ: It's the starting point, and the Legislature can reject those ideas, come up with ideas of their own. If they get the signatures of 76 of the 150 legislators they can expand it to include everything they want. In some ways the governor is like the referee in basketball throwing the ball up, and then it's the Legislature's call to do what it wants. But remember, he gets the final say. He signs or vetoes the bills. So, if Republican majorities don't like what the governor is proposing and think he could just make the cuts on his own, they could adjourn sine die, the first day, but I don't think they will.

Everyone decries deal-making but to make this a successful special session, there pretty much has to be some kind of a deal. I think the more it's done in secret without the public, the press and especially other legislators knowing what's going on, the more likely it is to fail.

CCC: How much of that is just a part of what happened going into the special session? It seems that we've heard over the last few weeks there have been negotiations ongoing. How much of these, kind of, behind the curtain deals without the public input are customary in a special session?

CJ: It's the norm. In a three or four or five day special session, it's intense. We've had some in past where nothing has gotten done in a special session, which leaves egg on the face of both the Legislature and the governor. So, that is probably not a solution anyone wants. There's never a good time to call a special session, but if there's no special session, this wouldn't come up until January of 2019, which is a long time to deal with it, and the state couldn't afford to pay its bills unless these 10 percent cuts were made.

CCC: Although the governor has a plan for what he wants a special session to look like, how, in past years, has that initial starting point put by the executive different from the outcome?

CJ: It's usually close to what is finally adopted because the governor is here all the time, his staff is here. I would be when it's all said and done it won't be too different. Perhaps the tax things might be different, and those might turn into cuts or the transfers, but if it devolves into a political shouting match, that doesn't help anyone.

CCC: Some lawmakers have expressed the interest of being mindful of how much these special session cost taxpayers. Can you give us some perspective on that?

CJ: On their face, special sessions are pricey. They're $106,000 for the first day, and then $58,000 every day after that Although when you compare it to the general fund budget, it's relative peanuts. But there will be grousing about the costs and people saying 'why didn't they get this done in the regular session,' and the fact of the matter is, they didn't know in the regular session that there was going to be a huge fire season in Montana, and they didn't realize revenues were going to drop off as much as they did, so I don't think these were predictable outcomes in the session when they left last spring. If they come in and do their job they could get out of here in three or four days, or two or three days, whatever it is. But if there are fierce debates over whether Gov. Bullock's proposals are adequate or if they have better ideas, they could be here longer.

CCC: Chuck Johnson, thanks for coming by.

CJ: You're welcome Corin, have fun a the special session.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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