With the 2023 Montana Legislature entering its final weeks, one of the key items remaining on lawmakers’ to-do list is balancing the state budget — squaring the state’s expected revenues with agency budgets, tax cuts and one-off spending bills that, in some cases, total hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Legislature’s Republican supermajority and Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte already ushered a billion-dollar-plus spending and tax-cut package into law, enacting bills that will send income and property tax rebates to taxpayers, put $100 million into a highway transportation program and cut future income and business equipment taxes. Additionally, the state’s main budget bill, the $14.3 billion House Bill 2, cleared the House March 23 and is working its way through the Senate, where it’s likely to see tweaks but not a wholesale rewrite.
Still in limbo are one-off spending measures that are considered independently of the main budget bill — what lawmakers often call “cat and dog” bills, in part because they’re commonly left out in the cold as budget committees try to keep the state’s finances in the black.
Budget bill clears House debate with GOP support, Democratic critique
The Montana House’s Republican supermajority voted in near-lockstep Wednesday to rebuff Democratic efforts to amend Montana’s primary two-year budget bill, clearing the way for the bill to advance to the state Senate after a final vote in the coming days.
With the state sitting on a historic surplus, there’s a pile of cash for the Legislature to spend this year. Even so, after many spending bills failed to clear an April 4 deadline for passing their first legislative chamber, the Capitol has many mouths left begging at the food bowl.
A budget status sheet published April 7 by the Legislative Fiscal Division identifies more than 200 live bills that would add to or subtract from the state General Fund. That list, which includes $204 million in General Fund spending on perennial state infrastructure programs, totals to $5.5 billion. That’s about $250 million more than lawmakers can approve without drawing the General Fund below the minimum reserve level required by law.
Here’s a look at which of the larger budget bills considered by this year’s Legislature are still elbowing for their portion of chow — and which notable proposals have already been kicked to the curb.
HOUSING & INFRASTRUCTURE
- ✅ House Bill 355, which allocates $267 million for infrastructure grants to maintain drinking water systems, sewer systems, roads and other facilities owned by counties, cities, towns and school districts. Sponsored by Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, the bill passed the House 77-15 March 11 and is pending in the Senate.
- ✅ House Bill 819 would put $50 million into helping middle-income workers purchase homes by providing mortgage assistance for deed-restricted properties. Sponsored by Rep. Paul Green, R-Hardin, the bill passed the House 74-25 April 4 and is pending in the Senate.
- ✅ House Bill 927 would put an additional $115 million into the state coal trust fund endowment and use it to offer low-interest loans to support affordable housing construction projects. The bill is sponsored by Speaker of the House Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, and co-sponsored by House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena. It passed the House 67-32 March 11 and is pending in the Senate.
Infrastructure bills advance with overwhelming bipartisan support
A slate of routine infrastructure funding bills that would authorize a combined $1.7 billion in state spending advanced with near-universal support following debate on the House floor Wednesday, with both Republicans and Democrats throwing their votes behind measures that would fund, among other things, state building upgrades, information technology systems, university campus construction and water and sewer projects in small towns scattered across the state.
- ✅ Senate Bill 536 would allocate $100 million to help city and county governments with road maintenance. Sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, the bill passed the Senate 28-21 April 3 and is pending in the House.
- ❌ House Bill 574 would have put $500 million into a trust fund to support price-restricted housing projects. Sponsored by House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, the bill was voted down by the House Business & Labor Committee March 30.
- ❌ House Bill 825, would have implemented the Home Ownership Means Economic Security, or HOMES Act advanced by Gov. Greg Gianforte as part of his budget proposal. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, would have put $200 million into a housing infrastructure account. Most of that amount would be invested as a permanent endowment with the interest used to offer loans for water lines, sewer lines and other infrastructure necessary to develop housing projects. The bill was voted down 30-69 on the House floor April 3.
TAX CUTS, CREDITS & REBATES
- ✅ House Bill 816 would provide additional income and property tax rebates on top of what the governor has already signed into law. In the bill’s current form it would allocate an additional $200 million to rebates. Sponsored by Rep. Josh Kassmeier, R-Fort Benton, it passed the House on a 67-32 vote April 4 and is pending in the Senate.
- ❌ House Bill 268, part of the governor’s budget proposal, would have created a $1,200-per-child refundable tax credit. As amended to include a phaseout excluding high-income families, the credit would have cost the state about $33 million a year. The bill was tabled by the House Appropriation Committee on a bipartisan vote Feb. 23.
- ❌ House Bill 526 would have exempted all Social Security income from state income taxes, expanding an existing partial exemption and reducing state revenues by roughly $120 million a year. Sponsored by Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, the measure passed an initial House floor vote 57-43 but was voted down by the House Appropriations Committee 6-17 March 27.
- ❌ House Bill 897 would have expanded the state’s MEDIA Act, which offers tax credits in an effort to encourage Montana-based film productions. Sponsored by Rep. Brad Barker, R-Roberts, the bill would have cost the state an estimated $60 million to $80 million a year. It was voted down 11-12 by the House Appropriations Committee April 1.
- ✅ Senate Bill 14 would expand MEDIA Act tax credits more modestly, costing the state an estimated $8 million a year. Sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, it passed the Senate 30-20 April 4 and is pending in the House.
- ✅ House Bill 332 seeks to use $45 million to establish a statewide health insurance trust for public school districts. Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, is carrying the bill on behalf of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and education advocates who maintain that such a trust would help drive down benefit expenses for smaller schools and their employees. HB 332 initially asked for $60 million in funding, but that amount was reduced by the House Appropriations Committee. It was tabled in committee but later revived and passed the House 69-30 April 4.
- ✅ House Bill 408 would increase the cap on tax credits Montana offers for donations to public school programs and private school scholarships. The bill would cost the state about $5 million a year. HB 408, which is sponsored by Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, also aims to limit the total amount of donations that can go to a single public school district. It passed the House 69-31 March 14 and cleared an initial committee review in the Senate.
- ✅ House Bill 587 would redirect Montana’s “95 mills” — property taxes collected to equalize funding between school districts in different parts of the state — from the state General Fund into a dedicated account, and also earmark roughly a third of that money to go toward state assistance for county retirement levies. The proposal is sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who has framed it as a budget transparency and local tax relief effort. HB 587 passed the House in late March on an 89-0 vote and is awaiting its first hearing in the Senate.
- ✅ House Bill 321 would direct roughly $73 million to a state account designated to help public school districts pay for major facilities and technology projects, allowing that account to reach its full $200 million cap. Going forward, HB 321 would then redirect all but 10% of coal trust revenues currently deposited in that account to the state’s conservation district. HB 321, sponsored by Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, works in tandem with House Bill 818, which would combine state accounts for school maintenance and technology projects into a single pot. HB 321 passed the House with bipartisan support April 3. HB 818, also sponsored by Reksten, passed the House 94-4 March 31 and is pending in the Senate.
- ❌ House Bill 863 would invest $22 million a year in state general funds to make school breakfasts and lunches free for all K-12 public school students. Sponsored by Rep. Melissa Romano, D-Helena, the measure was tabled by the House Education Committee March 29.
- ✅ House Bill 649 would increase Medicaid provider rates for certain services beyond increases included in the main state budget bill. Earlier versions of the bill would have added upwards of $50 million a year, some of which has already been included in the budget bill. It was reduced to a $5 million General Fund appropriation by lawmakers in the House Appropriations Committee, then passed the House on a 78-21 vote April 4 and is pending in the Senate. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena.
- ✅ House Bill 835 would backfill a budget shortfall in the portion of the Department of Public Health and Human Services budget devoted to the Montana State Hospital and other mental health programs. Sponsored by Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, it authorizes $56 million in spending. It passed the House 96-3 April 3 and is pending in the Senate.
- ✅ House Bill 872 would put $300 million into services and construction intended to shore up the state’s struggling behavioral health system, including the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs. Sponsored by Rep. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, the bill passed the House 79-19 and is pending in the Senate.
- ✅ House Bill 648 would make slightly-higher-income families eligible for the state’s Best Beginning program, which provides scholarships to help pay for childcare. In its current form, the bill would increase the program’s cost by about $7 million a year. Sponsored by Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, it passed the House 65-34 April 6 and is pending in the Senate.
- ❌ House Bill 967 would have allocated $150 million to a trust fund to support ongoing efforts to make childcare more accessible to Montana families. Sponsored by Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, the bill was voted down 40-60 on the House floor April 3.
- ✅ House Bill 226 would put $300 million into shoring up Montana’s Public Employee Retirement System. Sponsored by Rep. Terry Moore, R-Billings, it passed the House 72-25 Feb. 27 and is pending in the Senate.
- ✅ House Bill 569 would put a total of $96 million into state retirement programs for law enforcement officers. Sponsored by Rep. Terry Moore, R-Billings, it passed the House 62-37 March 2 and is pending in the Senate.
- ✅ House Bill 13 implements the state employee pay plan with raises negotiated between labor unions and the governor. The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, would cost the state General Fund an extra $60 million a year. It has passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
- ✅ House Bill 424 transfers $487 million to the state’s fire suppression fund and its budget stabilization reserve fund, or rainy day fund. The fire fund is used to cover state spending on fighting summer wildfires and also functions as a de facto reserve account lawmakers can tap in the event of a budget shortfall. The bill also allocates an extra $8 million a year to the governor’s emergency fund. Sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the bill passed the House 97-2 April 3 and is pending in the Senate.
- ✅ House Bill 833 transfers another $152 million to the fire fund. Sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the bill passed the House 96-3 April 3 and is pending in the Senate.
- ✅ House Bill 856 would allocate $150 million to facilities projects in the state Capitol complex. Sponsored by Speaker of the House Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, it passed the House 98-1 April 4 and is pending in the Senate.
Alex Sakariassen and Mara Silvers contributed reporting.
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