In special session’s wake, picking winners and losers

Capitol

Veteran Capitol reporter Chuck Johnson takes a look at the winners and losers in this past week’s special session of the Montana Legislature, and at least one yet-to-be-determined outcome.

HELENA—After a whirlwind, two-day special legislative session this week, it’s time to assess the winners and losers.

Winners:

Gov. Steve Bullock. The Democratic governor scored a partial but major victory. Instead of having to make $237 million worth of general-fund budget cuts to close a projected budget shortfall, Bullock now will have to reduce spending by one-third of that — by $76 million — because of actions taken by the special session.

Some Democrats are saying that is hardly a victory, but given the current legislative makeup, it probably was the best they could do. Republicans have a 59-41 majority over Democrats in the House and 32-18 in the Senate.

Republicans legislators. They kept their pledge and successfully blocked any tax increases. Some GOP lawmakers, including House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, questioned the need for the special session on grounds that Bullock legally could have cut the entire $227 million himself under state law.

Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend. The rancher, outfitter and author had the honor of making the motion to adjourn the House “sine die” or without a set date for a future meeting. Flynn gave a speech that left few dry eyes in the chamber. Since the Legislature adjourned in April, Flynn said he had been diagnosed with cancer in his kidneys, lungs and near his heart.

“Cancer may take my body, but it will never take my heart and soul,” Flynn said. He passed on to lawmakers his philosophy for dealing with the disease: “I hope you will live for today, plan for tomorrow and remember yesterday. God willing and even if the creek does rise and if this is the last roundup, I look forward to seeing every one of you again.”

Losers:

The workers’ compensation State Fund. Out of the blue, the Bullock administration targeted the quasi-public insurance company as a cash cow. Lawmakers approved, and Bullock is certain to sign into law a bill imposing a new temporary administrative fee on certain State Fund assets invested with the state Board of Investments.

This fee will raise $30 million over the next two years, or 13 percent of the total $227 million budget shortfall. The State Fund is prohibited from raising its premiums to make up the fee.

State human service programs that help the neediest Montanans. The lion’s share of the state budget cuts will come from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. That department will absorb $49 million of the $76 million in total budget cuts under Bullock’s proposal that was adopted by the Legislature.

The Montana Legislature’s flawed way of estimating revenue. Last winter, the Legislature — or at least the 12 Republicans on the 20-member House Taxation Committee — badly overestimated the projected revenue the state would collect. That is a major reason the special session was called.

Estimating revenues is extremely difficult. Under Montana’s system, there is no requirement that both the House and Senate debate and approve the revenue estimate, as must be done with the state budget. The last vote on the revenue estimate becomes the official revenue estimate, even if it is just a committee vote.

So the House Taxation Committee majority set the estimate. The full House, the Senate Taxation Committee and the full Senate never had a chance to even debate the estimate. That is not the first time this has happened.

To be determined:

Extension of the Shelby prison contract in exchange for cash. CoreCivic, the Nashville corporation that owns the private prison in Shelby, offered the state $30 million in cash it had accumulated from state payments in exchange for Bullock extending the state’s contract with the prison for 10 years.

Bullock hasn’t said what he will do, but two Conrad Republicans, Sen. Llew Jones and Rep. Rob Cook, crafted bills linked together by “contingent voidness” clauses aimed at boxing in Bullock. The governor can either extend the state contact for the prison, which is in Jones’ and Cook’s legislative districts, or Bullock would have to make additional cuts.

The move outraged many Democratic legislators, who philosophically oppose private corporations making a profit for incarcerating Montana prisoners and who have heard human rights complaints about the private prison. Some Republicans said it was an easy call and Bullock should extend the contract.

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