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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Legislators satisfied with session outcome

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

The Montana Legislature wrapped up a lightning-quick  special session early Thursday morning, and though they still question the timing or the immediate need for the special session, both of Dawson County’s legislators said Friday that they felt the session mostly accomplished its goals and that with legislators eschewing any tax increases to fill the state’s budget gap, Montanans as a whole came out on top.

“I think we did the best we could for the greatest number of Montana citizens without raising taxes,” said Rep. Alan Doane. “All in all, I’d say the people of Montana won.”

“I think so too,” added Sen. Steve Hinebauch.

Legislators ultimately let die Gov. Steve Bullock’s suggestion to increase tax revenue by raising the taxes on rental cars and hotel stays, which Bullock and many of his fellow Democrats had argued would largely fall on out-of-state visitors.

Instead, legislators worked to shore up the state’s general fund budget largely through budget transfers. They also approved accepting an offer from the company which runs the private state prison in Shelby to take back $30 million in an escrow account that had been set aside for the eventual purchase of the private facility in exchange for extending the private firm’s contract to operate it. 

“The bulk of the list was just repositioning spending,” Doane said.

He added that Bullock took some decisions out of legislators hands by submitting his list of budget cuts — which Doane noted Bullock had the authority to do — just before the session convened on Monday.

“The governor made his cuts right as we gavelled in, so that was pulled off the table right away,”  Doane said.

The only new revenue generator legislators approved is a new fee on Montana State Fund investments that is expected to raise $30 million. Doane and Hinebauch said they weren’t particularly enthusiastic about that decision, but did not sound particularly upset about it.

“We weren’t really pleased about the State Fund money, but that’s the way it worked out,” Hinebauch said. “But I think we were pretty pleased with everything else.”

Doane also voiced concerns about the Legislature’s decision to eliminate some $16 million in block grant payments to local schools for transportation services, saying that issue appeared to be an “urban/rural divide” amongst legislators and adding he has concerns that could negatively impact the local school district’s ability to bus students.

“The rural transportation block grants, I voted no on that, but it passed by a wide margin,” Doane said. 

Both Doane and Hinebauch also continued to question the immediate need for the special session, saying that a new revenue report just a couple of weeks away, property taxes beginning to roll in and federal fire disaster funding in the works would have given legislators a much clearer picture of the state’s budget situation in the weeks and months to come.

“I think personally it was way too early,” Doane said. “This wasn’t a crisis, this is just a money management issue. I kind of think this was a panic attack myself.”

“I agree with Alan, I don’t really understand why we were in such a hurry, I guess,” Hinebauch added.

With legislators having made their decisions and now back home, they said the ball is now back in Bullock’s court.

“We put a lot of options on his table,” Doane said. “We can’t predict if he’ll take ‘em or not or if he’ll veto them. That’s up to him.” 

Bullock already expressed his displeasure with some of the Legislature’s decisions, announcing Friday morning that he would veto a bill legislators passed which would  have raised $15 million over the biennium by furloughing some state employees.

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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