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Special Session: Budget Pieces Coming Together

Jackie Yamanaka

The Republican controlled Montana Legislature voted to make permanent nearly $77 million in budget cuts the governor intended to be temporary. Both the House and Senate gave final approval to House Bill 2 and sent the measure on to the governor.

In the meantime, work continues on companion bills. This includes Senate Bill 9 which includes the GOP's intent to use the $30 million offered from CoreCivic, the company that runs the private prison in Shelby, to help offset the projected $227 million dollar budget deficit.

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee passed SB 9 on a 16-2 vote Wednesday afternoon after tacking on 3 amendments to clarify the GOP's intent.  Finance Chairman Llew Jones is the bill's sponsor. He wants $15 million of that money to go to the wildfire fund and any remaining money the governor could use to restore funding to agencies that suffered budget cuts. 

Jones says lawmakers can't mandate the governor use those dollars in specific areas, but he urges the Bullock Administration to help essential services that affect Montana's most vulnerable populations, specifically families, children, seniors, and those with disabilities.

Jones says the bill also doesn't require the governor to negotiate a contract extension with CoreCivic, but the bill convey a message delivered often by GOP leaders that they support the concept. 

State Senator Mary McNally says she's concerned about the prison deal. But the Democrat from Billings says she's looking at the big picture.

"There is a lot more in this bill that's important. Preventing deeper damage to Montana citizens so I'm going to support it," she says. "But it's probably one of those hold your nose and vote."

"Sometimes those are the best bills," says Jones. He adds he understands this is a difficult bill for lawmakers.  Democrats generally don't like the bill's tie to CoreCivic.  The ACLU of Montana is critical of the deal saying CoreCivic has a bad record of dealing with Native Americans housed in Shelby.

SB 9 passed out of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee on a 16-2 vote. It now goes to the full Senate for Consideration.