With 2 weeks to go, it’s deal-making time in the 2013 Legislature

By Amy R. Sisk University of Montana Community News Service

A deal between Democrats and moderate Republicans helped to push the session’s major spending bill through the Senate last week, over the objections of GOP leaders.

Democrats agreed to support a ban on filling of 500 vacant state jobs over the next two years in exchange for help in blocking attempts by conservatives to make further cuts the $9 billion House Bill 2.

That coalition also voted to restore $4.6 million in federal money for family planning services. House Republicans had stripped HB 2 of that money over concerns that it would go to groups like Planned Parenthood, which offer abortion services. Federal law prohibits federal money from being used for abortions.

In the end, the Senate GOP leadership voted against the budget bill. If the House does not approve the amended version, it will go to a House-Senate conference committee for further negotiations.

Although HB 2 is the session’s biggest spending bill, other bills will include additional spending for schools, state employee pay and building projects and to address deficits in state pension plans.

Here is a look back at other highlights from week 14 of the Legislature:

School money

The session’s major education funding and reform bill has cleared the House Education Committee, but not before lawmakers cut its price tag by more than half.

The version of Senate Bill 175 passed unanimously by the panel last week sends $43.5 million to schools. That’s in addition to money provided to K-12 education in the state’s main budget bill.

When the Senate approved SB 175 in February, it provided an additional $120 million to public schools through a combination of property tax reductions and natural resource money.

“I don’t think we all like everything, but I am glad to see we are reining in the spending to a point,” said Rep. Jonathan McNiven, R-Huntley.

The current version of the bill would:

• Increase the basic entitlement school districts can receive by $14 million. That’s half the amount proposed in the Senate version of the bill.
• Provide money for schools to establish a data system so teachers and parents can better-track student achievement.
• Send money to schools that see a 4 percent increase in student population or 40 additional students.
• Allow school districts in oil and gas areas to keep up to 150 percent of their maximum budget in oil and gas production tax revenue. Previously, schools could retain up to 130 percent.

Lawmakers removed $47 million from the bill by taking out money from natural resource development. SB 175 no longer offers property tax cuts, although several other property tax measures remain alive.

“Overall, even in this form, my schools are going to be better off than they were last year – and that’s what I’m trying to think about right now,” said Rep. Nicholas Schwaderer, R-Superior.

Here is a look at other highlights from week 14 of the Legislature:

Gay rights

Gay rights activists will achieve a major victory this week when Gov. Steve Bullock signs a bill repealing a Montana law that made homosexual sex a crime.

Although the Montana Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 1997, the Legislature repeatedly refused to take it off the books.

The session’s effort to repeal the law – Senate Bill 107 – passed the Senate but was voted down by Republicans in the House Judiciary Committee. The bill’s supporters wrestled it from committee and put it before the full House, which passed it after a historic debate.

“Under this law, I am considered a felon. I am not your equal. In fact, this law puts me in the same category as people who rape animals,” said Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, an openly gay legislator.

The bill passed with 25 Republicans voting along with all Democrats. Thirty-five Republicans voted against the bill, attributing their opposition to religious beliefs and concern that homosexuality will be taught in schools.

Health care

Lawmakers on the Senate Public Health Committee pushed through a GOP alternative to Medicaid expansion last week.

They restored the original intent of House Bill 623, which a House panel had gutted to allow their senators more time to develop their own plan. Under the new version, the state will provide subsidies for people below the federal poverty level to purchase private insurance on the federal insurance exchange.

Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, said the bill would draw from the Insure Montana program and the sale of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana to pay for the insurance of people who do not qualify for Medicaid.

Charter schools

A House panel has voted down the session’s last remaining charter school bill.

Although Senate Bill 374 would have established a system to fund the public alternative schools, the Senate changed it to require that charter schools comply with the same rules as all public schools.

The amended version drew support from groups like the teachers union and school board association who had adamantly opposed charter schools in the past. Organizations like the Montana Family Foundation, who advocate for school choice, opposed the new version after the Senate stripped it of its original intent.

Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, said that despite the fate of charter schools this session, he will continue to push for alternatives so that children who are not succeeding in traditional public schools have more options.

Mending relationships

Republican and Democratic Senate leadership have struck a deal over a chaotic floor session two weeks ago.

Democrats pounded their desks, shouting at the Republican Senate president in an attempt to call for a parliamentary move to delay action on legislation until all 50 members were present. One Democratic senator was absent from the floor session, where lawmakers were expected to vote on two controversial measures related to elections.

Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, subsequently launched an investigation and issued seven subpoenas against Democratic senators and staffers. He agreed to drop those measures, provided that the minority party accepts its role in disrupting Senate proceedings and agree to working with the GOP to reform the Office of Political Practices.

Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at amy.sisk@umontana.edu. Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.