Montana Senate. Credit: John S. Adams / MTFP File Photo

When 150 Republican and Democratic legislators, dozens of lobbyists, labor organizations, special interest groups, political operatives, and citizens from across Montana all descend on the state Capitol for a special legislative session, you end up with a lot of delicate moving parts.

The fiscal and political realities House and Senate lawmakers are faced with as they work toward a solution to the state’s $227 million budget hole are complex, dynamic, and too numerous to list.

Make a change here and it effects what’s happening over there. Solve one problem, and three more crop up. Appease one key lawmaker’s list of demands, and five others show up with their hands out looking for their pieces of the pie.

And this is all happening at breakneck speed and costing taxpayers about $59,000 per day.

Swiftly achieving a solution that is palatable enough for 51 representatives, 26 senators, and one governor to swallow it is a monumental task under these pressure-cooker conditions. If a solution to the state’s $227 million budget shortfall is to be achieved in the coming days, then some elected office holders inevitably will have to swallow a bitter pill.

That means some Democrats may have to hold their nose and vote for a package of bills that includes authorization for a contract extension for a controversial private prison in Shelby. Some Republicans may have to vote to raise taxes, which they loathe. And it means Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock may have to face angry members of his own party who are committed to the belief that tax hikes on the wealthy are the best solution to the state’s revenue problem, even if they are impossible to achieve in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

In other words, there will have to be compromises, and it’s going to be uncomfortable for some lawmakers. Basic mathematics and current political realities dictate there is no other pathway to a solution that doesn’t end in the full $227 million in cuts.

Under the current makeup of the Legislature, Republicans hold a 59-41 majority in the House, and a 32-18 majority in the Senate. There simply aren’t enough Republicans in either body willing to vote for significant tax increases, especially when private prison contractor CoreCivic dropped $30 million on the table in exchange for a extension on its contract to run the 660-bed facility in Shelby. While Democrats may view CoreCivic’s offer as a “gun to the head” of Montanans, business-minded Republicans see it as a no-brainer solution to a significant part of the budgetary problem that reduces the need to increase taxes.

According to two sources, Bullock recently has had talks with top executives at CoreCivic, which may indicate he is at least considering a deal to extend the company’s contract at Crossroads Correctional Center. The governor’s office would not confirm such talks took place, but they did not deny it.

The company’s current contract is set to expire in June 2019, at which point the state would have the opportunity to purchase the prison, using the $30 million it has set aside as a down payment. But that is unlikely to happen. The current makeup of the Legislature would have to swing wildly in Democrats’ favor between now and the 2019 session, the state would have to be flush with cash by then, and the next governor would have to be willing to spend it on a prison. If the state doesn’t eventually buy the prison, then CoreCivic gets to keep the money (which will be more than $30 million by then), the state gets nothing, and we still have to find a place to put all those prisoners.

The offer puts Bullock in a tough spot with members of his party, who are adamantly opposed to private prisons.

A source with some knowledge of Bullock’s thinking on the CoreCivic deal said the governor does not want to approve a 10-year contract extension, which is what CoreCivic is proposing, but is trying to instead negotiate a shorter-term deal that does not lock the next governor into a long-term contract. Bullock’s term is up in 2021.

However, one Republican lawmaker told me that a short-term CoreCivic contract is a nonstarter: “Who would forfeit $32 million for a one-year extension?”

If the Legislature fails to pass a solution – or if they send a package to the governor’s desk that he then vetoes – then the Bullock will be forced to make an additional $151 million in cuts, which could be devastating to many state agencies. Health and human services alone could face more than $100 million in cuts over the biennium, which would slash programs that help children, seniors, and the mentally ill, among others.

If that happens, Bullock and the Democrats will do their best to try to hang those cuts around the necks of Republican lawmakers and hope for the best, and Republicans will point their fingers right back at the governor. And we all might be back here sooner than we want to be.

No matter what happens in the next 24 to 48 hours, no one will be thrilled with the final outcome. The best lawmakers can hope for is a solution that inflicts the least amount of pain on the fewest number of Montanans, and that’s not an outcome anyone can really be happy about.

John Adams began his professional career in 2001 in Idaho Falls, ID writing and editing for a variety of trade magazines. He covered topics ranging from potato and sugar beet farming to skate park and playground construction and maintenance. Adams started his newspaper career as the city government reporter for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, WI where he covered the City Hall, police, fire and local courthouse beats. In 2005 he joined the staff of the Missoula Independent in Missoula, MT where he worked as a staff reporter covering a wide range of issues including the environment,...