Republican legislative leaders from western Montana called the recent special session a success Friday, saying the GOP-led Legislature proved to be both efficient and effective.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, House Majority Leader Ron Ehli and House Appropriations Chair Nancy Ballance — all from Ravalli County — said they were proud of their party’s efforts to shrink the government in Helena while protecting vital services for needy Montanans. They also touted their ability to hold the line on taxes. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, had proposed temporary tax increases to raise $75 million to close the state's $227 million budget shortfall.
“Raising taxes was a non-starter, even though we got thousands of letters from people saying ‘Please raise taxes. We need these services,’ ” Ballance said on Friday, sipping a large cup of coffee and trying to recover from the long hours legislators put in during the whirlwind session, which ended at 1:40 a.m. Thursday. “But we knew that raising taxes only hurts vulnerable people, and the hard-working people of Montana who were already struggling.”
Bullock called legislators back to Helena, with the special session beginning Monday, to figure out how to fill the hole in the state budget caused by lower-than-anticipated revenue and the $75 million fire season.
Bullock had suggested splitting the shortfall into three parts, which included him making $76 million in cuts from state agencies, finding $75 million in transfers and $75 million in temporary tax increases.
Republicans rejected the temporary tax increases, but moved forward with the transfers and passed legislation to make permanent the $75 million in cuts that Bullock ordered for state agencies.
Legislators gathered about $123 million through fund transfers, a new fee and delayed payments, according to a spreadsheet from Balance. That included almost $30 million from a fee charged to the Montana State Fund, which administers the state workers compensation program, and the elimination of about $15 million in block grants for schools, which primarily pay for student transportation.
Another $30 million may come from CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby. It offered to return the money it placed into an escrow account in exchange for an extension of its contract, which ends in 2019.
“The real key is that when we came away, there’s $160 million that would have been cuts to service that aren’t,” Balance added.
Ehli said the deep philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats “couldn’t have been more highlighted” during the special session. He accused Bullock of politicizing the process by not putting together a realistic solution before the Legislature reconvened.
“So Nancy went to work to put together a large package of potential solutions we could take to the governor and talk about,” Ehli said. “Nancy was in the middle of some of the toughest decisions to be made to find cuts we felt harmed the most vulnerable.
“As the majority leader in the House, I thank her for pulling my caucus together better than ever before. We are going to take care of people the best we can by limiting cuts and not putting this on the back of taxpayers.”
Thomas said that the “untold story” is how Bullock sat on his hands for six months before the special session, not making any cuts despite evidence of the revenue reductions.
“We knew there were problems, but we weren’t in Helena, dealing with it day to day,” Thomas said. “Within one week, we saw a tremendous job get done that was significantly better than what he would have done.”
Bullock did oversee the implementation of SB 261, which included a series of cuts totaling $990,000 the Legislature created when revenue projections reached “trigger points.” Many of those cuts came through layoffs, program reductions and vacancy savings.