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Special session gets mixed reaction from local legislators

POLSON — The Montana Legislature was able to fill a projected $227 million budget deficit during a special session held mid November. 

State Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said it was a difficult task. 

Some legislators met for committee meetings on Monday, Nov. 13, and the session officially began at noon on Nov. 14. It adjourned at 1 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16. 

“The governor seemed to have an obsession to raise taxes,” Hertz said. “He gave us one week’s notice to force us into a corner. He didn’t think we could get accomplished what we did.” 

Hertz said the Legislature provided $230 million for the fire and general funds without raising tax rates. 

State Rep. George Kipp III, D-Heart Butte, whose district represents much of the east side of U.S. Highway 93 in Lake County, said the Legislature would not have had to go into special session if it would’ve passed Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposed budget in April.

That budget would’ve resulted in income tax rate increases for the wealthiest Montanans while also increasing tobacco, car rental and lodging tax rates, Kipp said. He noted that it would’ve provided $300 million for the state’s rainy day fund. 

Although he voted for some of the bills that passed in the special session, Kipp said he felt “pretty disappointed with the whole process. It was not a total loss, but we could’ve done much better.” He said the special session did not focus on human need and essential services. 

Hertz said he voted in favor of nine of the 12 bills that passed the Legislature. He opposed three bills — SB 1, 3 and 4 — because they could result in cost shifting. 

A 3-percent management fee will be imposed indirectly on employers for workers compensation insurance through SB 4, Hertz said. This will result in $30 million being taken from the Montana State Fund’s reserves for the general fund, he said. 

State Rep. John Fleming, D-St. Ignatius, said he supported SB 4 and noted that the Montana State Fund has a surplus of more than $1 billion. 

SB 2 ended transportation block grants for schools. Although the bill gives school districts some options to transfer monies to different funds, it could result in districts raising property tax rates. 

SB 1 temporarily suspended employers’ contributions to the Judges Retirement System. Hertz opposed this because it is the only state pension plan that is fully funded, he said. 

Of the 12 bills that passed, Bullock said he planned to veto HB 8 which would allow him to furlough state employees one day a month, for example. The cost-saving measure would result in $15 million in savings over the next two years. 

Fleming said he was a little frustrated because a “3-3-3 plan” that Bullock proposed didn’t come to fruition. 

That plan called for filling the budget gap with $75 million from cuts, $75 million in new revenue, such as car rental and lodging tax rate increases, and $75 million from moving money from fund to fund. 

FBC cut in limbo

On Friday, Caryn Miske, executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission, said she wasn’t sure how a proposed 100-percent cut in the FBC’s budget came out. 

Hertz said the proposed cut is in the hands of Bullock and John Tubbs, the director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. 

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