HELENA – Montana’s governor enacted just over $76 million in budget cuts Tuesday, and Republican lawmakers quickly sought to make them permanent and prevent him from vetoing other changes.
A special session of the Legislature opened Tuesday as the state sought to deal with a projected $227 million budget deficit caused by lower than expected revenues and a devastating fire season.
Gov. Steve Bullock announced he had enacted $76.6 million in cuts, including a $49 million cut in state funding from the Department of Public Health and Human Services. Republicans sought to make those cuts permanent by amending the main budget bill from the 2017 Legislature.
“What is the point of putting these in statute and making them permanent?” Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, asked in the House Appropriations Committee, noting Republican lawmakers didn’t want permanent tax increases to address the budget shortfall.
If the state’s finances improve, lawmakers have another bill that would put the first $20 million in any additional money into the general fund, then 50 percent of what remained into a budget stabilization fund. The other half would offset cuts proposed for three state elected offices run by Republicans – the secretary of state, the public service commission and the state auditor’s office.
Bullock had proposed $20.8 million in fund transfers, but the Republican bill authorizes about twice that.
In what the administration called a “cobweb of bills,” if Bullock vetoes any of the additional transfers, the move to make the budget cuts permanent or rejecting how any additional money could be spent, a provision would kill the bill authorizing all of the transfers.
The bill to reverse cuts also would dictate the spending if the state tapped $30 million available in case the state decided to buy the private prison in Shelby. CoreCivic is offering the money to the state if its contract to manage the prison is extended for 10 years. Democrats oppose making decisions on extending the contract during a special session and argue CoreCivic is looking for a sweetheart deal that could be worth about $150 million.
Republican lawmakers have said they plan to leave a $30 million hole in the budget, forcing the governor to extend that contract. House Speaker Austin Knudsen argued that if the contract ends in 2019 and the state doesn’t buy the prison, it will lose the money.
Other bills include one to repeal some individual income and corporate tax credits, one to require $15 million worth of furloughs by state employees making more than $50,000 a year and to require the Montana State fund to pay a premium tax on workers’ compensation policies it sells.
Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, argued any furloughs should go through collective bargaining with the unions that cover state employees.
It took three votes to get the bill out of the House Appropriations Committee.
Lawmakers were holding floor sessions and additional committee hearings on bills Tuesday night.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.