The 65th Montana legislative session has reached its halfway point, and the state budget still weighs heavy. Republicans and Democrats are working to reach a compromise on how to fund state programs, with battles over other policy happening simultaneously.
March 1 marks the session’s transmittal break, when general bills have to be moved from one chamber to the other. Roughly 300 bills are currently active in both the House and Senate. The House has also tabled nearly 150 bills, while the Senate has tabled over 60 of its own. This leaves a total of 34 bills confirmed dead.
Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, said while the days leading up to transmittal are always stressful, this session has been less so.
“I think we’re on pretty good pace here to get out of here,” Knudsen said, optimistic that the session would end in the allotted 90 days.
The Legislature is required to submit all general bills and revenue bills before transmittal, with several extra days given to the latter. After the final deadline, the legislature takes a break for several days, before reconvening to address the bills that are still left standing.
The No. 1 priority for both Democrats and Republicans is coming to an agreement on House Bill 2, the state’s budget.
“Things are starting to look a little better from a budget standpoint,” Knudsen said, referencing a new budget analysis that he said shows an increase in oil prices, as well as tax changes that may be enacted by the Trump administration.
Gov. Steve Bullock initially requested a $300 million ending fund balance in his budget proposal. Knudsen thinks $200 million is more realistic.
“The subcommittees have done a great job finding efficiencies and saving money,” Knudsen said.
The primary dispute this session has been over whether to balance the budget through increasing revenues or cutting spending.
House Appropriations Committee chair Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said she has not heard support for taxes from fellow Republicans, and said she did not want to add any new taxes.
In contrast, Democrats have proposed multiple avenues to capture additional funds for the state, including “sin taxes” on cigarettes and alcohol.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said while Republicans shot down the initial proposal on a tax exclusively on wine, he thinks there may be more appetite for a tax on all alcohol.
He expressed interest in a tax on online sales, but said no legislation has been introduced yet.
Knudsen said Republicans are divided on the issue of taxation, including the notion of a gas tax. That tax is part of House Bill 472, which would place an 8-cent tax on fuel to fund road and bridge projects. HB 472 is one of two major bills on infrastructure, which both parties named a priority for the session.
With Republicans in the majority of both the House and Senate, Democrats say they are struggling to see their values represented in the final budget.
“Our focus is going to be the people behind the numbers,” Sesso said. “We have to recognize that these numbers are just not cold hard facts on a spreadsheet, but there’s people behind every budget.”
Sesso specifically pointed to Sections B and E of the budget, which cover health and human services and education, respectively. With transmittal looming, Sesso said Democrats have shifted their focus primarily toward these two issues.
“The budget can seem so abstract,” said House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena. “This is a session where there are real people who have dire needs, and we need to be talking about those people.”
Sesso said that his constituents have expressed a need for senior and long-term care, an area of human services that may face cuts. He also spoke of a need to address tuition increases in the Montana University System.
Ballance said both of these areas will get attention next in the appropriations committees.
Knudsen described the health and human services portion of the budget as a “source of frustration.”
“When you’ve got a division that says they can’t come up with $200,000 to do something for Child and Family Services when they’ve got a budget of $4.6 billion, Republicans have a hard time swallowing that,” Knudsen said.
Democrats expressed disappointment with the tabling of spending increases for special education programs. Knudsen said while Republicans are not opposed to these bills from a policy perspective, like anything else it comes down to how much room is in the budget.
Ballance proposed an Office of Public Instruction study that would dig into “the ultimate solution.”
“Until we really know what we want to do long term, I didn’t want to see it go in as an inflationary increase,” Ballance said.
When it comes to non-budgetary issues, several big bills have earned bipartisan support, like those modernizing rape laws. Others, like discrimination and election laws, are more divisive.
Eck noted she was particularly pleased with the package of bills from earlier in the session addressing sexual assault sentencing and enforcement.
However, many of the key platform issues for Democrats have been tabled or killed. The statewide nondiscrimination bill protecting LGBTQ-identifying Montanans, as well as equal pay protections for women, paid family leave and a minimum wage increase were all tabled in committee.
Eck said voting rights have become a primary concern for Democrats, particularly in light of criticism faced by GOP leader Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, who spoke out against mail ballots in the upcoming special election for Montana’s congressional seat.
“I think our focus really needs to be how do we get more people voting, how do we get people engaged in the system,” Eck said.
On the Republican side, Knudsen said the session has mostly been smooth sailing in terms of key GOP issues.
“There’s nothing major policy-wise that’s stuck in committee that’s not moving,” Knudsen said.
Ballance is optimistic, but determined to get the budget finished.
“I’ve got these smaller pockets of things that need work,” Ballance said. “But as far as where we are in this stage in the process, I could not be more pleased.”
Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.