Reflecting upon legislative special session

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Two months preceding the special session, four legislative leaders from both parties along with a representative from the governor’s office convened meetings to establish a template for such a session. A consensus position stated that by one way or another, $150 million would be reallocated into the budget to restore lower than expected revenues and $75 million would be cut from HB2, the budget we walked away from Helena in the last days of April 2017. A formal deal was never reached as to the specifics to the consensus position. The legislators at the table included minority leaders Sen. Jon Sesso, Rep. Jenny Eck, House Appropriations Chairman, Rep. Nancy Balance and Finance and Claims Chairman Sen. Llew Jones. These legislators worked countless hours to establish a professional working relationship and subsequently were able to conclude that the need existed to address the revenue shortfall.

Expanding the call (specific subject matter and remedy), of the special session by Gov. Steve Bullock only required a majority of legislator’s approval. The late submission of bills caught many of us unprepared. Late call failed bills included proposals to use the Coal Trust Fund Principal to fund the shortfall, and permanent removal of all Montana tax credits apart from Capital Gains. Late entries gaining approval included an offer from Crossroads Correctional in Shelby to release to the state $30 million held in an escrow account in exchange for a 10-year extension to their contract, and the implementation of state employee furloughs during the remainder of the biennium for those making an annual salary of more than $50,000. I voted against these bills based on the lack of details, time allotted for public input, and lack of input from state agencies. It will now be up to the governor for final approval.

A key revenue bill that was part of the Governor’s call was the temporary increase in the lodging and rental car tax. I was glad to see this bill fail. I believe it placed a disproportional amount of burden on one sector of our economy. Whitefish especially was at a disadvantage with the inclusion of our resort tax. To be fair, I was told that lodging and rental car taxes were the only such taxes the majority might be willing to consider because of the high percentage of out of state contributors. In the end HB6, an act providing for fund transfers, was expanded by the Joint Appropriations Committee and got us to the finish line. As I look at the line items within the bill, I admit ignorance on the impact of such transfers. Here’s a few: more than $2 million from natural resources projects, $500,000 from the Hard Rock Reclamation Special Revenue Account, $2 million from the Hydropower Special Revenue Account and $1 million from Consumer Protection State Special Revenue Account. There is a long list of such transfers; some were part of the discussion before the session and the remainder were hammered out. Some of the transfers will be benign and others will have impacts on planned maintenance projects throughout the state.

The special session was not an example of model governance. We failed to provide adequate notice on newly introduced bills, so the public could more meaningfully participate in the process. We probably did not fully understand the ramifications of some of our decisions. We worked too late into the night. Despite such shortcomings, we have restored significant funding to essential services for our most vulnerable and we have replenished the Fire Suppression Fund. I consider my three days in Helena a frustrating success. Despite some legislators pointing fingers as to whom to blame for the shortfall, in the end we collaborated and clawed to the goal established by our negotiating committee.

Democrat Dave Fern represents House District 5 in the state Legislature.

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