HELENA – Montana’s 2013 Legislature came to its expected close Wednesday, but not before a conservative core of Senate Republicans staged a brief revolt that delayed the final gavel for three hours.
The group, objecting to what they saw as excessive government spending, eventually relented and allowed final votes on the bill that sealed a negotiated budget deal with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, bringing the session to a close.
“We found enough common ground to get our work done,” Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said moments before the final gavel at 3:10 p.m. “That means nobody gets everything we want, but we hopefully leave with everything we need for our constituents.”
The session, which finished three days ahead of schedule, tackled a slew of big-money issues, using state government’s estimated $500 million budget surplus in part to finance pay raises for state employees, big increases in state funding for public schools and fixes for troubled public employee pensions.
Bullock, who negotiated the final budget deal Tuesday night primarily with House Republicans, said he’s pleased with the investments made in education, the pension funds, state pay, infrastructure in oil and gas regions of eastern Montana, other building projects and programs for military veterans.
“I think we can all walk out of this legislative session knowing that good things were done for the state of Montana,” he said.
While Republicans controlled both houses of the 2013 Legislature, they couldn’t control its agenda, as a coalition of moderate Republicans and minority Democrats in the House and Senate joined together to pass most of the session’s major legislation.
That same coalition formed the majority for the final vote on the final bill, as eight Republicans joined 20 of the chamber’s 21 Democrats to pass Senate Bill 410.
The bill, approved earlier Wednesday by the Montana House before it adjourned at 9:17 a.m., contained the negotiated agreement that added $13.5 million to the state’s two-year, $10 billion budget. Bullock said he needed the money to address needs in corrections and public health, among other things.
Conservative Republicans in the Senate, however, delayed that final vote for three hours Wednesday, hoping to force Bullock to renegotiate on several items they said had been ignored.
The bill had missed a procedural deadline, thus requiring a two-thirds majority of the Senate to accept it for final debate and passage.
Twenty-one of the Senate’s 29 Republicans initially refused to vote to suspend the rules to accept the bill, saying they’d been left out of the negotiations and that more concessions by the governor needed to be made.
Bullock, however, called their bluff, saying the deal had been struck and that he would negotiate no further. It took three more tries, but the two-thirds majority – 37-13 – was finally achieved about 2:30 p.m. and the Senate then took up and passed the final bill.
Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who voted to block the bill, said later that conservatives felt the state budget spent too much money and that the 2013 Legislature fell far short of meaningful tax relief.
He said at least $125 million of the surplus should have been spent on tax cuts, and that the few reductions in property taxes that were approved were minimal.
“The people who like to spend a lot of government money were the winners (this session),” he said. “And the taxpayers. ... I don’t think we came out with much of anything.”
The Legislature approved a school funding bill that freezes local school property taxes for the next two years, with a promise of possible reductions in the future. It also approved a bill to cut property taxes on business equipment, and another bill that simplifies Montana’s state income taxes and cuts their top rate from 6.9 percent to 6 percent.
After conservative Republicans staged their protest Wednesday, the leaders of the moderate Republicans held a post-session news conference, at which they said they had stood up for “common-sense solutions” that will help improve Montana’s economy.
“Real Republicans do not simply say ‘no,’ “ said Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Huntley. “In life, we search for pro-active solutions. We solve problems, putting Montana first.”
Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said the Republicans who often joined with Democrats to form majorities on key issues this session are representing the wishes and hopes of people in their district, who want good schools, public infrastructure and a good public workforce.
“We call ourselves responsible Republicans,” he said. “Judge us by how we walk and how we talk. ...
“I think you saw the gamesmanship today that we saw all session,” Peterson said, referring to the Republicans who blocked the final bill for several hours. “You be the judge if you think that’s productive.”