By Shaylee Ragar
UM Legislative News Service, University of Montana School of Journalism
HELENA — Montana’s 66th Legislature adjourned Thursday, three days early and after a jam-packed final several days.
Lawmakers introduced a total of 1,309 bills this session, ranging from “cleanup bills” that remove unnecessary language in Montana code to bills that deal with issues like infrastructure funding, which will touch every corner of the state and cost tens of millions of dollars.
Of those introduced, 426 bills cleared both the House and Senate and were sent to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for either a veto or his signature.
Republican Majority Leader Rep. Brad Tschida of Missoula said of the sessions in which he’s served in the House, this was the most productive. Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Casey Schreiner, of Great Falls, agreed.
“I stand here proud to say we got (work) done, more than any legislative body that we’ve seen in a long time,” Schreiner said.
Lawmakers generally agree the 2019 session ran smoother than in years past. The constitutionally-mandated task of passing a two-year budget, which this session amounted to about $10 billion in spending, was accomplished by both the House and the Senate early. And, the state will fund infrastructure with bonds, or borrowing, and cash for the first time in at least five sessions.
Also, one of the biggest pushes of the session was to extend Medicaid expansion, which passed in plenty of time before adjournment.
Of course, not every proposal can find compromise.
Bullock has advocated for the creation of a statewide public preschool program since before last session. In 2017, lawmakers did pass a pilot program that funded pre-K in 18 school districts.
Two pre-K bills were killed early in the 2019 session, one carried by Schreiner and the other by Republican Rep. Eric Moore of Miles City.
Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, proposed two amendments to one of the state budget bills, Senate Bill 352, to add a full pre-K program or continue the pilot program. Both of those proposals failed.
“Quality preschool ought not be only for families who can afford it,” Bullock said at a press conference. “I do call on our future leaders who will be in these Capitol hallways in two years to find a way to get a permanent publicly-funded preschool program for this state.”
Multiple news sources reported the pre-K proposal was tied to a bill that would have incentivized Northwestern Energy to buy more shares of Colstrip’s coal-fired power plant or more of an energy transmission line that carries power to western states.
The coal-fired power plant must close two of its units by 2022 and demand for coal has decreased in favor of renewable energy. Taxes on coal add millions of dollars to state revenue, and as its value declines, lawmakers have been urgently looking for a solution.
But the proposal was widely criticized for what some saw as deregulation of the utility, taking away power from the Public Service Commission. It was amended multiple times and in its final form would have allowed for more oversight.
On the Legislature’s final day, lawmakers couldn’t strike a deal on pre-K and a so-called “Save Colsprip” bill.
Disagreements aside, Schreiner said a “perfect storm” of lawmakers were able to pass a number of bipartisan bills.
Updating Crumbling Public Works
For the first time in nearly a decade, lawmakers voted to pass a bill that allows the state to borrow money for public works, or what some call infrastructure, projects. Communities across Montana will be able to apply for grants and use them to update crumbling infrastructure, like sewer systems, bridges and roads.
And, Montana State University and the Montana Historical Society will get funding for projects they’ve been wanting for years. The infrastructure package includes money for Romney Hall renovations at MSU and a separate bill will stream new bed tax revenue into a new Heritage Center for the Historical Society.
House Bill 652, which passed both the House and the Senate, allows for an $80 million mixture of cash and bonds to go toward public building projects. In the past, Democrats and Republicans have disagreed on borrowing money for infrastructure. Another bill that passed solved that issue.
Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, carried House Bill 553, which lays out a careful framework of how the state borrows money for projects, which made HB 652 more palatable for conservatives who have voted against bonding in the past.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said back in January when the framework was proposed that many in his party were enthusiastic about the bill.
“The main idea is that we want to take politics out of the process of passing infrastructure bills,” Thomas said.
And while the bonding bill and the framework proposal were both proposed and voted for by Republicans, not all were supportive. Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, said she will never vote for a bonding bill that leaves debt for the taxpayer to pick up.
“Being debt free is truly freedom,” Brown said.
In his proposed budget, the governor asked lawmakers to consider raising taxes on accommodations, rental cars, alcohol, tobacco and investment license fees to generate more state revenue.
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, was co-chair of the House Appropriations Committee and said at the very beginning of the session that there was no appetite in the Republican party, which held a majority in both the Senate and the House, to raise taxes in Montana.
A major divide between how Democrats and Republicans think about taxes comes down to how the tax revenue will be used.
Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, proposed an increase on taxes on rental cars. He said its purpose would have been to flow more revenue into the state’s general fund, which pays a wide variety of government services.
During a tax debate on the House floor, Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, said wanting more state revenue is not enough to persuade him.
“I need a strong reason to raise a tax,” Skees said.
Most of the proposed tax increases, like those on alcohol or on carbon emissions, failed. However, a couple of specific proposals were able to squeak by.
Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 338, which is the bill that will use accommodation tax revenues to build a new Heritage Center to house Montana Historical Society artifacts. An aviation fuel tax also passed in House Bill 661 and will add a one cent tax on each gallon of airplane fuel.
Both proposals were carried by Republicans.
Another issue that was as divisive as tax proposals, and maybe even more so, was Montana’s Medicaid expansion program.
First passed in 2015, the state-federal partnership provides government-subsidized health insurance for more than 96,000 Montanans. The state has been receiving a 100 percent match rate from the federal government through the Affordable Care Act, but that rate is decreasing to 90 percent. Meaning, the state now has to pay for 10 percent of the program.
The four-year old program was set to sunset in June, but it was revived through House Bill 658.
The revival was not without opposition.
In December, Republican Senate President Scott Sales of Bozeman said he was not inclined to vote for the program. He was one of 24 senators who voted against HB 658 when it passed 26-24 this month. Some conservatives argue the program is financially unsustainable and that the government should not fund any so-called “entitlement” programs.
Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, was able to find Republican support by tacking on so-called “sideboards” onto the enrollment process for Medicaid expansion. Some recipients will be required to report on whether they are working or volunteering to receive benefits.
HB 658 also implements asset tests to weed out people who have significant property holdings from gaining benefits.
Bullock said although it’s not the policy he would have chosen, he’s happy the program will continue.
Passing an infrastructure package and Medicaid expansion were priorities for Democrats. However, the minority party wasn’t able to pass any legislation without bipartisan support.
A group that proved powerful this session was the self-titled Solutions Caucus, which is made up of moderate Republicans who broke from party leadership on some major votes.
Members of the caucus, including Representatives Moore, Ballance, Buttrey and Llew Jones, R-Conrad, carried high-stakes bills like the budget, bonding and Medicaid expansion.
Before the session even began, the Solutions Caucus was causing strife in the majority party. Skees served within party leadership as a whip and said party members should vote with party leaders a majority of the time. And if they don’t, he said, their service is a “lie” to constituents.
But the strategy of independent voting proved effective for the caucus in passing the bills it sponsored.
Overall, the governor said was pleased with the Legislature’s work.
“I’m thankful for the legislators who put in the hard work day-in and day-out, and for those who made it not about the political winds and losses, but instead about putting forth meaningful legislation,” Bullock said.
Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Newspaper Association, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. Shaylee can be reached at [email protected]