Legislature probably heading to Helena due to 'present and voting' requirement
HELENA - Modern technology probably won't prevent a special legislative session in Helena next month, but House Speaker Dan McGee, R-Laurel, sure wishes it could.
"I'd like to see us have a virtual special session," McGee said in a meeting with legislative staff and two other lawmakers Friday.
McGee and other state leaders learned Wednesday that an omission in the main budget bill from a six-day special session earlier this month effectively invalidates $30 million in cuts intended to help eliminate a $57 million budget deficit, and chief legislative attorney Greg Petesch said another special session is probably the only way to fix the problem.
Staffers for Gov. Judy Martz said she will make a decision about whether to call a session Tuesday, but legislative leaders were already resigned to the possibility, and have even suggested potential dates, including Friday, Sept. 13.
The task of a September special session would be simple, but important: Give the budget bill, House Bill 2, a starting date. Somehow, that important detail was dropped from the bill as it made its way through the often contentious six-day session, and without it, the $30 million in spending reductions in the bill can't legally take effect until July 1, 2003, one day after the end of this fiscal year.
Petesch said the constitutional requirement that a law be passed by a majority of lawmakers "present and voting" makes a virtual meeting questionable at best.
"If we meet to fix this error, let's make the fix as legally unassailable as possible," Petesch told McGee. "We have nothing to guide us as to whether this (meeting electronically) would be appropriate."
McGee's hope was to use the Montana Educational Telecommunications Network for an interactive video conference, rather than have all 150 lawmakers travel to Helena for a day. There are 13 METNET sites across the state, and he said the cost for lawmakers to meet by video conference would be only $5,000 to $10,000, compared with the estimated $50,000 to $70,000 price tag for a single-day legislative gathering in the Capitol.
"I think it's an option we have to explore fully," McGee said, adding that he still needs to discuss the matter with Martz and his Senate colleagues.
Stephen Maly, a legislative research analyst who also works with legislative technology, said even if it were legal, he wouldn't recommend using the Montana Educational Telecommunications Network.
"It's pretty clunky, I must say," Maly told McGee. "People have never been comfortable with it. It's sometimes unreliable."
In a separate interview, Senate President Tom Beck, R-Deer Lodge, who will be taking over new duties Tuesday as chief policy adviser to the governor, said he doesn't think there is a choice.
"I think we're risky," Beck said of using the telecommunications network. "I think it could be challenged because it's outside the constitution of Montana. I don't want to leave the governor in that position."
A special session puts Beck in a somewhat awkward position. He will be both president of the Senate - his term ends in January - and one of the governor's top aides. He said he plans to leave the leading up to President Pro Tempore Walter McNutt, R-Sidney, unless, that is, someone tries to expand the scope of the session.
"If there's any game-playing or anybody that tries to expand that session … I will try to stop anything like that in the Senate," Beck said. "Then I will put on my president's hat again."
Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty, D-Great Falls, said in a telephone interview Friday that he doesn't think there is much chance anyone will try to expand the session.
"I don't think you'd find much support from anybody," Doherty said.
Although lawmakers could wait until the January regular session to make the change to the budget bill - giving HB2 an effective date retroactive to August - doing so could jeopardize the state's ability to pay its bills until then, fiscal analyst Terry Johnson said.
By November, the state plans to issue about $100 million in short-term bonds to cover expenses but can't do so without proof it can pay back the money by the end of the year, Johnson said. Even with the $30 million in spending cuts included in HB2, the state is expected to have only $3 million in cash on hand at the end of the year. So without the money in HB2 legally in the books, the state cannot prove it is able to repay the bonds.
Johnson said the short-term bond issues are normal for this time of year but haven't been needed in the past two years because the state has "been in a very cash-flush position."
State finances have since taken a drastic turn for the worse, with estimates that lawmakers will start work on the next two-year budget cycle by having to cut $250 million in spending. Martz, who has signed a no-new-taxes pledge, has said she does not support increased taxes as a solution.