HELENA — As Montana lawmakers departed Helena on Thursday for their mid-session break, they agreed on at least one thing: substantial differences on taxes, spending, health care and other big issues are unresolved and need plenty of elbow grease in the Legislature’s second half.
“(We’re) like halfway through the session, but in terms of workload, it’s about 10 percent,” said Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings. “Ninety percent of the work is still left.”
Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, also weighed in with his judgment Thursday, saying he would give the Republican-led Legislature an “incomplete grade” so far.
“There are a lot of issues that we’ve raised that are important to Montana that (Republicans) are still holding up or haven’t acted on,” he said in an interview from his Capitol office. “They still have a lot of work to do this next half of the session.”
Bullock and his Democratic allies, who are the minority in the House and Senate, don’t like the direction that majority Republicans are taking on tax policy, and they said the GOP is resisting or killing good policies that will create jobs.
“There has been a troubling trend of legislation that seeks to give money to the wealthiest among us and the corporations, while sticking it to hardworking Montanans and the working class,” said Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte. “This is just unacceptable.”
Republican leaders said their top priority is broad-based tax relief for all taxpayers and that these cuts can help spur the economy and create jobs.
“If we’re going to turn government around, it starts with tax reform, it starts with less burden on the taxpayer,” said House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers. “I think it’s important that we look for permanent tax relief that’s effective across the board. That’s our push.”
Lawmakers completed the first half of the 2013 Legislature on Wednesday and Thursday and headed home for a five-day break. They’ll punch the clock in Helena late Monday but won’t get down to actual business until Tuesday, when committee meetings and floor sessions resume.
The House Appropriation Committee will be voting next week on the session’s major budget bill, as its members piece together the blueprint for the state’s $10-billion-plus budget for the next two years.
Joint House-Senate budget panels have roughed out a preliminary budget not far from the spending plan proposed by Bullock, although key differences still exist on some program spending.
For example, Republicans didn’t approve a Bullock proposal to help returning military veterans attend state colleges and universities.
Yet far greater differences loom on tax policy, public-employee pensions, state employee pay, building projects and the possible expansion of Medicaid, which would extend health coverage to an additional 70,000 Montanans.
None of these issues is close to being resolved, and many have yet to face an initial vote in committee. Bullock also hasn’t introduced his bill outlining the Medicaid expansion.
The House this week approved tax bills that cut property taxes across the board and has refused to consider Bullock’s proposal to give Montana homeowners a one-time, $400 rebate.
The Senate also is looking at bills to cut state income taxes and carry out similar reductions in property taxes.
Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, called Bullock’s tax-rebate proposal a ”gimmick that won’t encourage any economic activity,” and said he prefers tax relief that will “provide the greatest probability of economic growth.”
Republicans also haven’t tipped much of their hand on how or whether they would like to tackle the state’s financially troubled public-employee pensions, although some GOP leaders have said they’d like to switch new public hires to a system like a 401(k), with no set pension for retirees.
On Medicaid expansion, Republicans leaders said they remain strongly opposed — although they said they want to give Bullock’s proposal a fair hearing when it hits the Legislature in bill form.
These differences were on full display Thursday, as Democratic lawmakers held a news conference at the Capitol and said Republicans are not really delivering on promises to work with Democrats and the governor’s office to boost the economy and create jobs.
House Minority Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, noted that Republicans rejected Bullock’s proposal to require public-works projects to hire more Montana workers, haven’t acted on the state employee pay plan, are resisting Medicaid expansion and rejected the plan to help veterans attend college.
“The jobs bills that we’ve been talking about are not moving,” he said.
“At the end of the day, I think we have some common-sense proposals that will actually create jobs, improve our educational system and make government more effective,” Bullock said. “I certainly hope (lawmakers) will be looking at where Montana ought to be and what their constituents want, and not just play political games.”
Essmann and Wittich said the Legislature and the Bullock administration need to acknowledge that federal funding and taxpayer money isn’t a bottomless well — but that they feel both sides have been trying to work together and stay cordial.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Essmann said of prospects for the session’s second half.