The state’s main budget bill is one vote away from going to the governor’s desk. Majorities in both the House and Senate have now agreed on it and some of its companion spending bills.
For the first time in recent memory, the state's main budget bill won't go to a joint House-Senate conference committee to hammer out any more deals.
This was a belt-tightening session. Lawmakers knew at the start money was going to be scarce because of the drop in revenue from agriculture, coal, and oil and gas.
Appropriations Chair Nancy Ballance said close coordination between the Republican-controlled House and Senate held the line on spending:
"We cut as deeply as we could in this budget without impacting essential services: education, health care and corrections. Now some say we didn't spend enough; others are saying we didn't cut enough."
Those points came up during the brief debate on the bill.
Still, House Minority Leader Jenny Eck said lawmakers had the opportunity to address the revenue shortfall through the tax system. She said it's also a matter of fairness:
"We have a very tight budget. We have a budget where we've had to make so me very hard decisions, decisions that are going to hurt working folks in this state."
Eck said a fairer tax system potentially would have spared cuts to higher-education and the tax shift to fund local schools to local property tax payers:
"Why would we say that that has to be the choice, and meanwhile ignore the fact that we continue to refuse to hold out-of-state corporations and multi-millionaires to a higher standard, you know, and protect our working folks?"
In response, Ballance said she didn't mind talking about fairness, but she pointed out other bills were passed that spent money outside of the identified essential services.
"Let's talk about whether or not it's fair to increase taxes and then spend that money not on education, not on healthcare, not on working people, but on a new museum in Helena."
A direct reference to one of Eck's bills to raise the bed tax to fund a renovation for the Montana Historical Society.
Democrat Jonathan Windy Boy joined all House Republicans in voting to accept the Senate's amendments to House Bill 2.
Governor Steve Bullock remains concerned about the budget approaching his office, but isn’t giving a clear signal of what he will do when it finally lands on his desk.
"I’ve got 10 days once it gets to my desk, and it’s seeing where the rest of the bills end up."
Bullock says there are handful of companion bills to main budget bill that are still shifting in the Legislature and will continue to change how state spending looks over the next two years.
The Republican majority in the House and Senate have rejected Bullock’s proposed tax increases on the wealthy, and other taxes aiming to bring more money into the state. Early on in the legislative session Bullock demanded lawmakers leave $300 million unspent to protect the state against future revenue declines, like those seen this year.
But the Legislature is choosing instead to spend less and begin crafting a new plan to protect against revenue shortfalls that doesn’t require as much money to be set aside in state coffers as backup.
When the House voted Thursday to accept the Senate’s changes to the budget, they approved a $19 million increase in spending compared to the budget their chamber passed on a party line vote last month.
With that spending increase, the the state’s total spending is lower than what the Bullock administration asked for, but will still increase state spending by just over half a percent.
The more than $10 billion state budget needs one more vote of approval from the House before moving to the governor’s office.
Once there, Bullock’s options are to sign the budget, veto it in total, or line-item veto parts of it. The Republican majority in the legislature is not big enough to overturn a full or line-item vetoes.