Governor likely to veto furloughs, pans prison deal

The Guv

Chuck Johnson

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock met with reporters Thursday to discuss the outcome of this week’s special legislative session.

HELENA—Gov. Steve Bullock said Thursday he expects to veto a bill passed in the special legislative session directing the executive branch of state government to furlough certain employees to save $15 million over the next two years.

Hours after the Legislature adjourned, the Democratic governor told reporters that House Bill 8, sponsored by Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, was riddled with legal problems and “was pretty half-baked and in many respects, fairly silly.”

Bullock added that the bill, aimed at employees making more than $50,000 annually, amounts to “playing politics with people’s lives.”

On another topic at a news conference, Bullock said he hasn’t decided whether to extend the contract of a private prison in Shelby for 10 years in exchange for $30 million to help with the state budget shortfall. He appeared to be irked at the tactics of the Nashville company, CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, but said he has made no decision yet.

“Allowing a private, for-profit prison to take advantage of what was the worst fire season in our state’s history by either jacking up the rates that we pay, asking for a term long beyond Montanans might need — given all the good work that we’ve done on justice reinvestment — isn’t something I’d think would be in the best interests of our state,” he said. “So no decision has been made. It’s up June 30, 2019. But no contract has been changed or modified.”

The governor added, “I don’t think you negotiate a contract that has long-term implications for the state of Montana, you don’t negotiate it three days before a legislative session and you don’t do it in a manner where you’re trying to hold something over you to get terms that otherwise might not be in the best interest of Montana. Certainly, I will continue to talk to them and continue to do my job in trying to do the best job for the taxpayers of Montana.”

Two Conrad Republicans, Rep. Rob Cook and Sen. Llew Jones, had bills drafted and linked together with other bills in an attempt to box in Bullock to extend the contract of the prison in their legislative districts and accept the money for the state to help fill a $227 million budget and revenue shortfall.

CoreCivic offered to return a portion of the money Montana has been paying the company over the years and set aside for the eventual state purchase of the prison.

Montana faces the budget and revenue shortfall because state tax collections have lagged far behind legislative projections earlier this year and because the state experienced its costliest wildfire fighting season in state history.

Earlier this fall, Bullock said he would have had to make cuts of $227 million unless other solutions were found. That number was lowered to about $76 million cuts ordered implemented by Bullock and put into law by the special session the governor called.

“In the end, we certainly didn’t find the perfect solution,” Bullock said of the special session action. “But we also avoided $150 million in cuts of services. I call that a victory for the people of Montana.”

The potential cuts weren’t just numbers on a balance sheet. They involved programs that help young and elderly Montanans, and many of those programs now are preserved after the potential cuts were reduced. In addition, he said, the actions prevented additional tuition increases for college students and strains on law enforcement.

Bullock said the $76 million in budget reductions that he ordered and that Republicans also put into a bill would probably result in the layoffs of 50 to 100 state employees in the coming weeks and months.

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