Montana lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow the state to accept $30 million from CoreCivic, the company that runs the private prison that houses some of the state's inmates. The company has offered to give the state that money in exchange for another 10 year contract to run the Shelby facility. The bill's sponsor says if Governor Steve Bullock accepts that offer then $15 m of that money would go into the wildfire fund and the rest could be used to soften cuts to state agency budgets. Senate Bill 9 is part of the Republican majority's plan during the special legislative session to address the projected $227 m budget shortfall.
The reason for Montana's budget shortfall is revenue hasn't met expectations since lawmakers adjourned their regular session last April and the state faced a record wildfire season this past summer.
Republicans have made it clear they support a deal with CoreCivic even though many Democrats oppose the idea, this includes the governor. GOP legislative leaders say they accept the cuts the governor identified to agency budgets that provide many services to Montanans. Republicans also see the offer from CoreCivic as a way to limit any potential temporary tax increases Bullock has proposed as part of a three-pront approach to help backfill the ailing budget. Bullock has also suggested fund transfers to help the state pay its bills through the bienniem.
So Senate Bill 9's sponsor, Senate Finance Chairman Llew Jones, crafted his bill to direct money into the wildfire fund and find money to soften some of the blows from the governor's budget cuts. Jones says lawmakers won't tell the governor where to spend the money, but they do have a suggestion.
"That suggestion is fairly clearly laid out on the 2nd page of the bill, the most vulnerable populations, to families, children, seniors and individuals with disabilities,” Jones says.
Jones often refers to his bill as "unwinding" the cuts. Opponents, however, call this bill "handcuffs" because it is tied to the governor's fund transfer proposal, House Bill 6.
State budget director Dan Villa was among the opponents.
"I’m just going to have to express disappointment," he says. "I didn’t think this is how we did business."
The sponsor was asked numerous times if this bill was aimed at forcing the governor to accept the offer from CoreCivic. Jones repeatedly said there’s no obligation for the governor to do anything, although this money is part of the Republican’s plan to help bring this special session to a close.