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2019 Legislature comes to a close; preschool, Colstrip efforts fall short

HELENA — Montana’s 2019 Legislature came to an end Thursday, as lawmakers passed the final pieces of the state’s two-year budget and a bill authorizing a new, $48 million state Historical Society museum.

But they left two major issues undone: state funding for preschool and a bill to encourage NorthWestern Energy to buy a larger share of the Colstrip 4 power plant, which was pitched a way to prolong the plant’s future and provide lower-cost electricity to consumers.

Still, legislative leaders and Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday mostly praised the session’s accomplishments, which included extension of Montana’s Medicaid expansion program, approval for hundreds of millions of dollars for public building projects, freezing college tuition, and passage of several Republican-sponsored bills to encourage business development, such as a tax abatement for broadband investment.

“At the end of the day, I do think in Montana we continue to be a shining example of how our political system is supposed to work,” Bullock told reporters late Thursday afternoon. “We’ve once again demonstrated that we can put partisan politics aside and come together to do right by Montanans.”

While praising lawmakers for their bipartisan work, Bullock noted that nearly 300 bills passed by the Legislature have yet to reach his desk — and that he expects to veto some of them.

“There are millions of dollars in spending bills headed to my desk — spending with no revenue tied to it, or way to pay for it, that will require me to veto, to assure our budget will not spend more than it takes in,” he said.

Republican leaders in the Senate alluded to this dynamic at their post-session news conference, saying they hoped Bullock would favorably consider some key legislation they felt would aid businesses and consumers in Montana.

Those bills include the tax-abatement for broadband investment, a tax credit for businesses making new hires and bills aimed at reducing the cost of health insurance and prescription drugs.

“There’s a laundry list of things we tried to get done and we got a good many of them accomplished,” said Senate President Scott Sales, R-Bozeman. “And now it’s up to the governor to see whether or not he would like to come to an agreement on those bills — obviously, let them become law without his signature or sign them.”

Bullock gave no indication Thursday on what he would do on those bills, saying only that he would examine them once they reach his desk. After a bill is passed, it must be signed by the House speaker and Senate president and go through an enrolling process before it’s transmitted to the governor, who has 10 days to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

Any veto from the Democratic governor is likely to stand, because the Legislature is no longer in session and Republicans don’t have enough votes to override it, if a mail-ballot override vote is required.

The final day of the session saw a last-ditch effort by Democrats to pass state funding for preschool, which was a priority for Bullock. The money was offered as an amendment to a catch-all budget bill in a conference committee.

But Republicans, who controlled the majority on the committee, voted against it, saying they didn’t want to put the preschool funding in the state budget as a permanent or temporary program. A temporary program had been funded for the past two years.

Public-school lobbyists also opposed the program, saying it was a step toward using public money to fund privately run schools.

Bullock said he was disappointed by the outcome and that he hoped future legislatures would consider state funding for preschool.

“Quality preschool ought not be only for families who can afford it,” he said. “I do call on our future leaders, who will be in these Capitol hallways in two years to find a way to get a permanent, publicly funded preschool program done for this state once and for all.”

Within an hour after the conference committee finished its work on Senate Bill 352, the final budget bill, the measure was brought to the House and Senate floors and passed, and both bodies adjourned shortly thereafter.

Earlier Thursday, the House gave its final approval to the main budget bill, House Bill 2, which contained most of the spending for the state’s $10.3 billion, two-year budget.

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, the sponsor of HB2, noted that it increased overall spending by only 3.8 percent for the two-year period — less than inflation. She also said it included some difficult choices on what to fund, or not to fund.

“So yes, this is probably not something that everyone loves,” she said on the House floor. “But it’s probably the best this group could have done.”

One of the last votes of Thursday was the House’s 58-40 approval for Senate Bill 338, which raises the state lodging tax from 3 percent to 4 percent and uses 80 percent of that increase to finance construction of the Historical Society’s new museum, the Montana Heritage Center. The rest of the new revenue goes to a grant program for local historical sites and museums.

The Historical Society has had the new museum on the drawing board for more than a decade, at a site yet to be determined in Helena.

But lawmakers adjourned without passing any language to aid the purchase of a larger share of the Colstrip 4 power plant.

The original proposal called for enabling NorthWestern Energy to purchase up to 150 megawatts of the plant’s outcome for $1, by guaranteeing that the company could then charge ratepayers up to $75 million over 10 years for operational costs. The bill also said the state Public Service Commission could not review the purchase.

That bill was killed in the House last week, but supporters of the plan hoped the language could be inserted into another energy-related bill in a conference committee, in the closing days of the session.

Yet the necessary conference committee for either bill was never appointed. The Senate voted 26-24 late Thursday to appoint one of the committees, but House leaders did not reciprocate, killing the efforts.

“It’s a huge issue; I don’t think it’s going to go away,” Sales told reporters afterwards. “We need to pay attention to it, and hopefully future generations, at least in the next Legislature it will get the attention it deserves.”

Mike Dennison

Mike Dennison

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