The budget bill of the 2017 regular session passed without a single House Democrat vote. Nor was there Democrat support for the faulty revenue estimate — intentionally inflated to avoid the dealing with the budget truthfully back in April.
Regardless, our team answered the call of the special session and traveled to Helena to help. We arrived in a spirit of cooperation, eager to work with our colleagues on a solution in the best interest of all of Montana.
Instead of uniting as the legislative branch, the branch of government responsible for producing the state’s budget, Republican leaders chose to take advantage of their budget failure by forcing the state into a one-sided contract extension for the private prison operators in Shelby. They pledged their loyalty to corporate managers who can’t vote for them (they live in Tennessee) over workers who did vote for them. Pay at private prisons is lower than state prisons while the work environment is more dangerous. Taxpayers lose, too. Due to perverse incentives in the contract, private prisons are also more costly in the long run.
Despite its negative impact on Montana, Republican leaders created a web of legislation that would force Democrats to swallow the bitter pill or endure further cuts to the vital services our most vulnerable Montanans depend on. I’m very proud of the Democrats in both the House and the Senate for resisting the ploy in what was essentially a protest vote.
Not all fault lies with the Republicans however. The chief negotiator on the Democrats’ side was the governor’s budget director who was easily outwitted by Republican leaders. The finance teams in the Democratic caucus had little time to review the legislation before it was voted on. By that time, the die was cast, and Montanans must now endure a repulsive agreement that will saddle taxpayers for another decade.
Republicans also lobbed a few more insults at some of their favorite targets. They expanded the call to go after the working poor with an attempt to repeal the earned income tax credit, and the LGBT community by forcing Montanans to recount private and sometimes painful personal stories in a courtroom before obtaining a birth certificate accurately reflecting their gender. They also took a swipe at state employees in an effort to force them take unpaid leave. This got a little awkward because our staff in the room at the time were state employees and one of them had to draft the bill that would serve as their own financial undoing.
There are some things that Montanans can be proud of coming out of this special session.
With less than a weeks’ notice, 148 legislators from across Montana put their lives, families, and jobs on hold to come to Helena and address our challenges.
Even more notable was the legislative staff who pulled the marathon two-day session together. The legislative days lasted 18 hours. Staff was there when we arrived and still there when we left — including our chief clerk who literally looked as if she could go into labor at any minute.
The session ended in a very solemn yet inspiring moment. Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, was given the honor of delivering the sine die speech. Racked with cancer since we were last together in April, he offered words of encouragement, joy, faith and comraderie but indicated that this was likely the last time we would see him. I’m struggling to type as my eyes well up remembering the words and the man. Thank you for reminding us about what is truly important, Kelly.