MTPR

As Legislative Session Hits Halfway Point, Lawmakers Have More 'Heavy Lifting' Ahead

Mar 1, 2019

Montana’s 2019 legislative session is at the halfway point, and lawmakers will now break for a week as policy bills are transferred between the House and Senate.

During the first 45 days, the Legislature signed off on a $77 million K-12 school funding package, reached an apparent compromise on long fought-over infrastructure spending, and started laying the foundation for the next state budget.

"We’ve got some heavy lifting to do on the second half of the session," Republican Speaker Greg Hertz said on the House floor today.

The House speaker released an open letter today saying Republicans will resist Gov. Bullock’s upcoming proposals to increase taxes on hotel beds, car rentals, tobacco, and liquor.

Rep. Greg Hertz (R) - HD12. Hertz is the speaker of the House at the Montana Legislature.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney / Montana Public Radio

While no new statewide taxes have been approved, Democrats and Republicans widely supported the K-12 funding bill that will increase property taxes at the county level by more than an estimated $5 million across the state, over the next two years.

Bullock is asking for other tax increases to help balance his proposed budget, including his call to leave $300 million in state reserves.

The governor told reporters this week that he still hopes the Legislature will approve the proposals to increase state general fund revenue.

"We’ve got to fund the government that folks expect, and we’ve got to leave money in the bank at the end to ensure that they’re not coming back as soon as we send them home," Bullock said.

Bullock is hinting there at the possibility of a special session if revenues fall below projections and the state’s savings account is unable to absorb the hit.

The last budget lawmakers passed in a regular session collapsed, in part because of an unforeseen dip in revenue and the costs of a historic fire season. That led the governor to call a special session in the fall of 2017.

According to a general fund revenue update released today, money coming into the state is close, although a touch below, the point where state lawmakers expected at the start of the legislative session.

Debate over the future of Montana’s health coverage program for low income adults will also define much of the next half of the 2019 session.

Montana’s Medicaid expansion system expires in four months if not reauthorized. In mid-March competing bills to keep the program going are expected to get their first hearing.