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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Special Session's First Day: Republicans Move Swiftly To Stymie Bullock

Montana House Speaker Austin Knudsen at a Republican caucus press conference Tuesday
Corin Cates-Carney
Montana House Speaker Austin Knudsen at a Republican caucus press conference Tuesday

Governor Steve Bullock’s outline for the special legislative session began to unravel yesterday as the Legislature's Republican majority moved their own plan for balancing the state budget

When Bullock called for a special session early last week, he instructed lawmakers to come to Helena to patch the $227 million hole in the state budget. The scope of that fix limited lawmakers to a combination of temporary tax increases, budget cuts and government transfers.

But when Republican lawmakers arrived they quickly expanded the governor’s call to include debate on health insurance and the federal Affordable Care Act, gender designation on birth certificates, and setting up the state to accept a $30 million bailout from Montana’s only private prison.

The full Republican budget deal is still taking shape, and will likely be fully revealed before the full bodies of the House and Senate later today, but last night Democrats were already feeling trapped.

“We really are kind of boxed in right now," Billings Representative Kelly McCarthy said at a Democratic caucus meeting after 8:00 last night.

"The private prisons is what they’re forcing on us right now," McCarthy said. "Because without it, we don’t get the transfers  - there’s 90 million (dollars) more in cuts.”

Democratic proposals to solve the budget woes are not completely lost, and some Republicans have conceded that they may have to look at temporary tax increases.

But they say Republicans are handcuffing them, and Governor Bullock; forcing them to accept a bailout from the CoreCivic private prison or make deeper cuts to state agencies.

Republican Llew Jones characterizes it as a choice.

"He can certainly take the (prison) deal. He can choose adjust his ending fund rebuild, or he can do additional cuts, I guess. He is under no obligation to accept the deal," Jones said in a committee meeting after 11:00 last night. 

The first day of the session was a sprint of rule changes and expedited hearings, with private meetings between key party members strategizing the next moves. Most of the work was done in committees. The full bodies of the House and Senate didn’t see much in the way of substantial bills that could fill the state gaping budget shortfall. That will likely come later today.

Committees start at 8 this morning. Floor sessions begin at 10. Lawmakers expect another long day of work, and for the details to become clearer later in the day, for how the state will solve its current budget crisis.

One part of the Republicans' plan passed initial votes Tuesday. It would save the state money by furloughing government employees.

House Bill 8 moved forward on a near party line vote in the House Wednesday night. Billings Representative Barry Usher would require state executive branch agencies to save $15 million by temporarily laying off public employees.

Usher says this will help balance the state budget, but protect workers from losing their jobs entirely

“I know what it feels like," Usher said, "and I feel like state employees would rather take a furlough day than be fired.”

It’s unclear how many state workers this bill would impact, or how long furloughs could last.

Last night’s vote indicated it will pass the House and move to the Senate for consideration later today.

Critics of the bill say it violates collective bargaining agreements, and multiple amendments to it have cluttered and confused its intent. Details on how many workers would be affected, and how long a furlough might last, could come out later today.

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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