Montana Legislature adjourns after passing $10.3B budget
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana lawmakers adjourned the 2019 session Thursday after passing a $10.3 billion budget to pay for state services over the next two years and a measure to raise the state’s lodging tax to improve the Montana Historical Society museum and other museums statewide.
The House held its final vote Thursday afternoon on a budget bill that forecasts a $210 million surplus in the event expenses run higher or revenues come in lower than expected. Representatives then approved a measure that had failed in previous sessions to remodel and expand the historical society museum and offer grants for improvements to other museums statewide.
One of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s top priorities, expanding publicly funded preschool programs, was shot down in a conference committee as was an effort to continue the pilot program approved in 2017. Republican Rep. Nancy Ballance said the pilot program was created to take advantage of federal funding that has now ended.
Still, Bullock said: “Dang near every proposal that I asked this legislative body to seriously consider will be making its way to my desk. I say this to underscore that the budget and policies that we passed this session truly are a reflection of the values of the Montanans that we serve.”
The Senate adjourned first, officially ending lawmakers’ hopes to revive legislation to allow NorthWestern Energy to buy an additional share of a high-voltage power line and possibly a larger share of a coal-fired power plant in Colstrip.
Two of the plant’s four units are scheduled to close by July 2022. The bill would have allowed NorthWestern to more easily acquire a bigger stake in one of the newer units from co-owners looking to sell their ownership in coal-generated electricity.
The budget bill cut funding for about 100 vacant positions in the Department of Public Health and Human Services and restored other cuts made because of declining revenues after the 2017 session.
“This is probably not something that everyone loves, but it’s probably the best this group could have done,” Ballance said, noting the Senate only made five amendments to the budget bill, and only one was substantive.
Lawmakers will also leave $61 million in a budget stabilization fund.
Both Democrats and Republicans praised passage of bills to fund $2.7 billion in infrastructure work over the next two years, including a bill allowing the state to sell up to $80 million in bonds to pay for building, water, sewer and bridge projects. Both parties touted the economic boost the work will bring to the state.
Democratic Rep. Jim Keane said the 66th Legislature will be remembered for Democrats and Republicans working together on a framework for future bonding. He said that work helped the legislature to pass this year’s bonding bill that “cleared the decks” of long-sought projects including remodeling Romney Hall at Montana State University and building a dental clinic at Great Falls College.
Legislators from both parties also supported a bill calling for the state Department of Justice to hire a missing persons’ specialist to work on missing person cases. The bill was named in memory of Hanna Harris, a Lame Deer woman who was killed in 2013 on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
Democrats and Republicans also touted their work on bills to reduce the cost of health insurance through a high-risk pool and efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs by regulating pharmacy benefit managers — the intermediaries between the drug manufacturers and pharmacies.
“This session really will go down as one of the more innovative sessions,” Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas said. It was “very productive for things that we could work on together with Democrats and hopefully the governor does see it that way, as well.”
Earlier this month, the Legislature passed a measure to continue Montana’s Medicaid expansion program for another six years. The program insures about 96,000 low-income people, and its continuation was another one of Bullock’s priorities for the session.
The Medicaid expansion bill adds 80 hours of work or community engagement requirements per month, strengthens an asset test and increases premiums for people who remain on the program for more than two years. It also allows the health department to verify an applicant’s income with information from the Department of Revenue.
Conservative Republicans opposed several tax and fee increases that passed and were concerned that Bullock might not sign some tax cuts. He already vetoed a bill to reduce the amount of taxes collected on Social Security income.
Bullock said lawmakers have passed 300 bills that have not been forwarded to his desk and that some will be vetoed because there is not enough money to pay for all the proposals. He said he will consider the remaining bills before deciding which ones to sign.
Montana also is poised to be one of the first states this year to legalize sports betting after lawmakers passed two bills that would create separate regulatory systems. Bullock has not said what he plans to do with the legislation, which comes after the U.S. Supreme Court ended Nevada’s monopoly on sports gambling last year.