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April 21, 2023

In theory, Montana legislators allocate funding to worthy infrastructure projects across the state using a deliberate sequence of applications, ranked scores and wonky appropriation bills that apportion funding while discouraging lawmakers from using pet projects as fodder for political horse trading.

As one of the session’s major infrastructure bills rolled through the Senate Finance and Claims Committee April 20, however, some of the committee’s 19 senators couldn’t resist packing a bit of pork sausage. Amid a flurry of earmark amendment votes that ultimately spurred committee chair Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, to abruptly end the meeting with the bill in limbo, lawmakers of both parties added millions of dollars for projects in their districts.

“I’m not sure if the purpose of [the] Senate Finance and Claims Committee is to come in and see what we can grab off for our hometowns, but it’s beginning to look that way,” a frustrated Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said at one point in the discussion.

When House Bill 5 passed the House unanimously March 31, it contained $1.2 billion for projects, including $16 million for repairs at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, $5 million for a new grant program for homeless shelters, and $23.5 million to construct a building for Gallatin College, a two-year campus affiliated with Montana State University in Bozeman.

In their Thursday meeting, lawmakers on the committee tweaked the bill’s provisions before it heads to debate on the Senate floor. With the Legislature in late-session crunch mode, several lawmakers added language to bring home the bacon.

Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, brought an amendment to allocate $8 million for the Yellowstone Conservation Area, a reservoir and park project near Billings. Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, brought another to give the city of Columbus $1 million for water and sewer upgrades. Sen. Kenneth Bogner, R-Miles City, followed with $2 million for a train depot renovation in Miles City. Then Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, brought a $10 million amendment to design and build a new mining museum in Butte.

“If this passes I’ll bring a $10 million conceptual amendment to start a project up in my county,” Cuffe, who chaired the budget subcommittee responsible for infrastructure programs, said about the Lynch amendment.

Esp also appeared unhappy about the direction his meeting was heading. 

“I just wish we were doing this on the floor of the Senate, where God and everybody else could see it,” he said. 

“We’re on video,” noted Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta. (An MTFP reporter was also in the room.)

All four additions passed — though Lynch agreed to reduce the mining museum allocation by $400,000 if the committee put that money into a grant program for facilities serving people with autism.

Committee members, who also cut a $15.5 million project at a Department of Corrections building on Helena’s walking mall, had more projects to offer. Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, proposed spending $2 million to help local governments pay for park improvements, saying that money would be spread across the state. That passed as well.

Then, at 6:40 p.m., Bogner, the Senate’s president pro tempore, made another proposal, urging the committee to add $3 million for a fire station in Miles City. Esp, the committee chair, called a recess and left the room. 

“Uh oh, somebody’s going to the woodshed,” Sen. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, said moments later in a comment captured on video. 

When the committee returned shortly after 7 p.m., Esp announced the infrastructure debate was done for the day. Instead, he said, the finance committee would bump the discussion to the following day, even though that meant delaying a planned Senate floor debate on the state’s primary budget bill, House Bill 2.

The Senate finance committee eventually picked HB 5 back up as it worked through other bills the next day, advancing the billion-dollar-plus bill — with the amendments — on a 15-4 vote without further discussion.

House Appropriations Chair Llew Jones, who runs the House-side counterpart to the Senate finance committee, said in a press briefing April 21 that most of the line items in the House version of the infrastructure bill had been appropriately vetted. 

“I think they got a little late and a little excited and a little worked up. That happens,” he said.

“When you just create a system that becomes a grab bag,” Jones added, “I would say your system is more linked to political influence than it is to good governance.”

The infrastructure bill, Jones said, will likely end up in a conference committee to reconcile the Senate’s amendments with the House-passed version of the bill, a process that could potentially strip out the new spending. He also said specific appropriations could be subject to line-item vetos by Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Lynch, for his part, noted that House Appropriations members had also adjusted the bill in their committee and defended the senators’ efforts to put their own spin on the bill.

“It was actually people doing their own projects, versus coming in and doing the bureaucracy,” Lynch said.

—Eric Dietrich

Bill Report

House Bill 816a late-session effort to add to the sum of property and income tax rebates approved by the Legislature this session by almost $200 million, was dramatically amended and then almost unanimously tabled in the Senate Local Government Committee Friday — a prime example of the budgetary antics that can characterize the last days of the session. A successful amendment from Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, replaced the supplemental property tax rebate with funding for a housing infrastructure revolving loan account. A subsequent amendment from Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, then restored a child tax credit that lawmakers on the House side killed in another bill earlier this month. After all that, the committee voted to table the bill anyway. But that doesn’t mean it’s dead. Paradoxically, it keeps the bill in play without advancing it to the floor, as bills can be brought off the table. The bill is likely to come out of the committee, one member said, but what form it might take hasn’t been decided. 

Senate Bill 370, a bipartisan measure to adopt an updated version of the Uniform Commercial Code, a set of standardized rules intended to streamline commerce between states, failed in the Senate Friday. Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, and carried on the House floor by Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, the bill had previously passed both chambers of the Legislature with bipartisan support, but fell decisively on a 6-44 vote with opposition from most Republicans and all Senate Democrats. Its defeat was celebrated by the hardline Republican Montana Freedom Caucus, which took credit for “orchestrating the downfall” of the bill in a tweet that also argued the measure “would have paved the way to a Central Bank Digital Currency.”

House Bill 317 and House Bill 338 will head to conference committees after the House voted not to concur with Senate amendments to the bills Friday. The bills’ sponsor, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D- Box Elder, made the motion so that lawmakers could meet to reconcile the conflicting versions of the bills and, he said, restore their original intent. HB 317 would codify a version of the Indian Child Welfare Act into state law. HB 338 was initially written to ensure schools are following through on the state’s Indian Education for All provisions, but was amended in the Senate to state that schools are only “encouraged” — rather than mandated — to “incorporate the distinct and unique cultural heritage of Montana American Indians in the content standards that schools must implement.”  

House Bill 458, sponsored by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, was kicked back to the Legislature by Gov. Greg Gianforte Friday with a suggested amendment. The proposal would add a definition to state law for career coaches who provide K-12 students with advice on career and higher education opportunities. HB 458 passed the House and Senate with strong bipartisan support, but Gianforte proposed striking language that would require career coaches to be licensed by the state superintendent of public instruction. In a letter to legislative leadership, the governor applauded the overall intent of the HB 458 but wrote that the licensing requirement would “create red tape and hurdles for districts seeking to hire career coaches.” Lawmakers will now decide whether to approve Gianforte’s amendment or send the bill back to him as-is. On a related note, current Superintendent Elsie Arntzen recently appeared in the Capitol rotunda to announce her plans to hire 10 regional career coaches at her agency as part of her new Montana Ready program.

House Bill 971, one of the most controversial environmental bills of the session, passed second reading in the House Friday. Drafted in response to a judge’s revocation of a permit NorthWestern Energy received to build a gas plant in Laurel, HB 971 initially attempted to discourage the Montana Supreme Court from requiring agencies to analyze greenhouse gas impacts by changing environmental review requirements for power plants and mining proposals.The House voted to strike that portion of the bill, but left intact language directing the state to not consider greenhouse gasses within or outside the state’s borders in environmental reviews. To date, Legislative Services has tallied 34 comments in support of the measure and 633 in opposition. All three of Butte’s Democratic representatives joined all 68 House Republicans in voting to pass the amended version of HB 971.

Eye in the Capitol

Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, left, prepares to cut some literal red tape during a bill-signing ceremony for several of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s signature deregulatory proposals. “I have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” she said. Credit: Photo courtesy of the governor’s office

Heard in the Halls

“There are good reasons for decorum to help us run things smoothly. But what we saw today is that decorum has been wielded by the Republican Party as both a shield and a cudgel. And they will use decorum to block themselves from repercussions. And they will use the rules to inflict harm and erasure of members of the minority, and particularly they’re choosing this moment to erase me.” 

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, speaking about Republican House Speaker Matt Regier’s decision not to recognize her on the House floor for the remainder of the session following her comments on legislation restricting gender-affirming care for trans minors. Regier said her pointed criticism of the bill, which included telling lawmakers they should feel ashamed if they supported it, broke decorum. Zephyr again sought to be recognized on the floor Friday, and was again denied. Democrats appealed that ruling, but majority-party Republicans affirmed it on a mostly party-line vote.

On Background

House Speaker Matt Regier refuses to recognize Rep. Zooey Zephyr on floor until she apologizesSpeaker Matt Regier’s refusal to recognize Democratic Missoula Rep. Zooey Zephyr on the House floor this week almost immediately became statewide and national news. For background, see this Montana Free Press report from Thursday. (MTFP)

General Fund Balance Sheet: For the most recent estimate of live spending proposals in the Legislature, see the House Bill 2 status sheet published April 19. (Legislative Fiscal Division)

11th-hour bill seeking changes to environmental regs passes committee: A Yellowstone County judge’s ruling halting construction of a natural gas plant in Laurel generated a last-minute legislative end-run that passed an initial vote in the House Friday. For more, see this previous reporting from Montana Free Press. (MTFP)