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House Appropriations Chair Says Intention Was Not To Have Pre-Session Negotiated "Deal"

Jackie Yamanaka

The fact Montana lawmakers were going into this week's special legislative session with no pre-negotiated "deal" in place gave many at the Capitol heartburn. The session wrapped up shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday morning. Governor Steve Bullock called legislators back to the Capitol to help address a projected $227 million dollar budget shortfall and backfill the state's depleted wildfire fighting fund. 

“This is my sixth special session. The sixth. And this is the first special session I’ve been at where a deal wasn’t done when we walked in the door," says Former Senate President and current state Representative Jeff Essmann.

"The previous governor, a talented politician who frustrated me greatly, but he knew how to get a deal done before we walked in the door," Essmann says of former Governor Brian Schweitzer. "It was clear. We walked in. There wasn’t a lot of hassle. Everyone knew what the outcome was going to be. We voted and we left. We didn’t get that option this time."

We didn't want to come in with a deal.

That was by design says House Appropriations Chair Nancy Ballance, "We didn’t want to come in with a deal."

The Republican from Hamilton was one of the key architects in executing the GOP’s response to the projected $227 million budget shortfall.

"We knew if we came in with a deal it would be a non-starter because our people do not like to have deals put in front of them that they’ve not been a part of crafting. And I would feel the same way," she says. "So our goal was to put as many possibilities on the list as we could so we could come in here and say, ‘ok if you don’t like one then here’s another one you can pick from.’"

The governor set up the framework when he called lawmakers back to the Capitol for the special session. Basically, he proposed tackling it by dividing the expected deficit into thirds, so about $76 million spread across budget cuts, fund transfers, and temporary tax increases.

But Ballance says the Republican-legislative majority had other ideas and tax hikes were not part of their equation.

"I think the real message is we came in here to work not for the governor but with the governor to fix the problem that we had," says Ballance. "And we all came in here with different perspectives but I think we all came in to solve a problem."

Ballance says  she and Senate Finance Chairman Llew Jones of Conrad, her budget counterpart, began working on a plan after the interim Legislative Finance Committee meeting October 5, 2017. She says there were many, many conversations and meetings along the way. This included with the Bullock Administration. Ballance says she and Jones were looking for possibilities.

Ultimately what they shepherded through the special session was to accept the Governor’s proposed cuts to agency budgets. Then they added several of their own twists.

Some were controversial, including to put the cuts into statute, effectively making them permanent for the next year and a half unless certain conditions are met. Essentially the intent is that if more tax dollars flow into the state then the governor could inject money back. Lawmakers told the governor they would prefer spending to help Montanans most vulnerable citizens who are hurt by the cuts to the Department of Public Health and Human Services. 

Jones says if the governor does that the intent is that lower number in the new House Bill 2 won't be considered part of the so-call base of the agency's budget. However, Jones says if the governor instead uses any additional revenue to create a new program, then those dollars would be considered one-time-only funds that would have no guarantee they would be funded by future Legislatures.

Ballance and Jones also tied several of the budget bills together to essentially blow up the entire package if the governor outright vetoed or even issued line-item vetoes. Those provisions were often referred to by opponents as “handcuffs.”

Ballance says there's also truth to that, "People could say, 'Can’t you just trust that we’re going to do what we said we’re going to do well?' Yes and no. I mean we do those things to tie some pieces together that might not otherwise have been done. We box ourselves into corners sometimes and it’s all part of what we do just to get the work done."

It's part of that political part of the process. That's not fun but a reality.

In the end, the Democratic Governor, GOP-majorities in both the House and Senate, and Democratic legislators worked together and passed a series of bills that re-injected dollars into the wildfire fund depleted by one of the worst fire season’s in Montana history.  They also patched the anticipated deficit. All without raising taxes, but all admit it came at a toll of cutting services to Montanans.

The fate of those bills now rests with the governor.