Republicans justify move by saying tax relief critical

HELENA - Republican lawmakers on Wednesday officially expanded next month's special legislative session to include tax cuts for Montanans of up to $100 million.

The GOP majority submitted to the Legislative Services Division the signatures of 76 of 150 legislators, the necessary threshold to meet to extend a special session to other issues. All 76 signatures were those of Republicans.

The expansion means legislators will focus not only on Gov. Marc Racicot's plans to restore funding for a series of economic programs, but also to provide long-term funding for those same programs, reduce income taxes and cut local property taxes by increasing state public school support and reimbursements to local governments.

Racicot, also a Republican, issued the formal call for a May 8 special session Tuesday, limiting the agenda to spending $13.3 million in one-time state treasury money on a series of economic development programs. He specifically left off the docket the issue of tax reductions, saying it's unclear how much money the state has to pay for such relief, other spending priorities exist and that those issues are too complex and best left to the 2001 regular legislative session.

The governor said Wednesday he remains opposed to any legislation dealing with tax reductions in a special session and believes the GOP efforts are "the wrong thing to do." He said he's unwavering in his stance.

"I don't want to create offense, but I have a firm, steadfast belief in the position I've taken and I don't anticipate changing that position because of the reasons being so apparent and persuasive to me that we shouldn't move in this direction," Racicot said.

Already, Republican lawmakers have requested seven bills be heard during the special session. Of those, three deal with the tax reductions, one focuses on providing long-term funding for the governor's economic programs and three deal with confirmation of new judges.

No Democrats have yet requested any bills be drafted, nor have any lawmakers requested any bills be drawn up for the governor's $13.3 million economic package.

House Speaker John Mercer, R-Polson, said the GOP expanded the session because it believes tax relief is a critical component to helping Montana's economy bounce back. He said special sessions are called for the purposes of an emergency and the state of Montana's economy fits that description.

"Our position is that if you are serious about helping Montana's economy, you need to make a permanent commitment to the programs you think will work and make tax reductions so that the taxpayers can also be freed up to contribute to economic development as well," Mercer said.

"We can't just rely on government."

But Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty, D-Great Falls, said the Republicans are simply out for political favor in an election year.

"The ink is barely dry on the governor's call, but the speaker already has declared war on the governor," said Doherty. "What further high jinks await us?"

"This is all about who can make the biggest headlines from here on out," added Doherty. "Good, sound fiscal policy will be a victim to crass political opportunism. That's where we're at."

Doherty said lawmakers should keep the session focused on one-time funding for the economic development programs laid out by the governor. He said tax reductions should be left to the regular session, not considered four weeks before a primary election and six months before a new governor is elected.

"We ought to do what the governor asked us to do and we could be gone in three days," said Doherty.

But Senate Majority Leader John Harp, R-Kalispell, said tax relief fits well with the goal of the special session and continues the work of Republican majority during the 1999 regular session, which is and was bolstering Montana's ailing economy.

"This special session is all about economic development," said Harp. "I'm hoping we can work with the governor and come out with something that's supported by Montanans and still get out of there within a very limit amount of days."

On top of the latest session expansion, two petitions are circulating to extend it even further. One petition, requested by Rep. David Ewer, D-Helena, would deal with the Montana Power Co. energy sale by clarifying and providing jurisdiction to the Public Service Commission over utility assets and transfers. The other, requested by Sen. Chuck Swysgood, R-Dillon, would essentially overturn a recent district court decision to clarify and require that economic feasibility and environmental soundness be considered in developing an open-pit mine reclamation plan.

Details of special session expansion

Here's a look at the specifics of the Republican session expansion plan. All the bills have been requested by House Speaker John Mercer, R-Polson:

€ A bill to reduce statewide property taxes by increasing state support for public schools and reimbursements to local governments.

€ A bill to refer to the November ballot the issue of reducing state income taxes by lowering state income-tax brackets (measure would serve in lieu of the measure proposed above in case it is unsuccessful or is vetoed).

€ A bill to permanently fund Gov. Marc Racicot's economic development programs by creating an interest-bearing trust fund within the state's permanent coal tax trust fund.

€ A bill to simplify state income taxes and reduce income taxes by lowering state income-tax brackets, with the cost of those reductions covered by part of a surplus in the state general fund.

Missoulian State Bureau

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