Gov. Steve Bullock

Gov. Steve Bullock calls lawmakers back for a special session to address lagging state revenues in this file photo from early November. 

Thom Bridge, thom.bridge@helenair.com

Gov. Steve Bullock didn’t hide his disappointment with the way the special session ended late Thursday, but said it was a victory for Montanans who were at risk of losing essential services.

The governor said he planned to veto legislation that proposed furloughing state employees in the executive branch to raise at least $15 million in the biennium. The governor's action on this measure would not jeopardize any others passed during the special section. 

The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, who said he didn’t include the legislative branch because it was difficult to ask someone to draft a bill that would potentially result in their furlough.

Bullock called the legislation "playing politics with people’s lives” and said he didn't think it was "a real earnest solution'' to the state's budget problems.

Bullock called legislators back to Helena to address a $227 million shortfall after revenues came in lower than expected and firefighting costs hit $75 million this summer.

The session ended shortly after 1 a.m. on Thursday with a combination of cuts, transfers and charging a $30 million fee on the State Fund for workers compensation.

“I think Montanans can have some confidence and assurance that where we ended up for services they expect were a heck of a lot better than where we walked in on Monday,” Bullock said.

Unlike previous special sessions, legislators came back to town without a deal in place. Bullock proposed splitting the budget shortfall into thirds, with $76 million in cuts to state agencies made by the governor, $75 million in fund transfers and other ways to tap money and $75 million in temporary tax increases.

But Republicans didn’t have an appetite to increase taxes. Instead, they came up with more fund transfers in a series of pieces of legislation tied together in an effort to strong arm the governor into extending a contract with the operator of the private prison in Shelby.

Republicans skillfully drafted several bills so if the governor vetoes all or parts of the legislation, the entire package could go down, leaving him with the full $227 million to cut.  

After rejecting tax hikes on rental cars and lodging facilities, GOP leaders found $94 million in cuts and transfers on top of the $76 million proposed by the governor. After charging a fee on the state fund to generate $30 million in revenue, the Legislature left a $30 million hole for the governor to fill by either accepting the deal with CoreCivic, the prison operator, or making more cuts.

Democratic legislators called the package a “carefully crafted web of legislation” that put them in handcuffs.

In a meeting with reporters Thursday afternoon, Bullock said the package was “silly political theatre by and large” and said the proposed prison deal was taking advantage of the worst fire season in the state’s history. The governor said he would have conversations with CoreCivic, but wasn’t ready to make any decisions.

He said the Legislature's actions have human consequences.

“These aren’t just numbers on pieces of paper we can use or ague as political points,” he said. “These are real folks. These people expect and rely on the services.”

Bullock implemented his proposed $76 million in cuts on Tuesday and said those impacts would be felt in the coming weeks and months. While the governor’s office hasn’t been able to come up with a final number, he said 50 to 100 people could lose their jobs.

The governor said he hasn’t yet looked at a bill that would allow Auditor Matt Rosendale’s office to apply for health care innovation waivers, although he did say it had nothing to do with the special session. The plan could impact insurance rates for high-risk persons.

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