The special legislative session erupted Tuesday as Republicans introduced a flurry of bills designed to tie the Democratic governor's hands and make the temporary cuts he put in place permanent.
Some lawmakers compared the hectic and harried day to the third quarter of a basketball game while others likened it to teetering on the edge of a cliff.
Nonetheless, lawmakers insisted all the components of a deal to fix the state's $227 million budget problem were still in place, although none said an agreement was close to being worked out.
Several controversial new elements have been added to the mix, including a furlough for state employees and a ban on allowing people who are transgender to change the gender on their birth certificates.
Legislators started the day before dawn with scattered discussion and held committee meetings and House and Senate floor sessions, many announced on short notice, far into the night. Frenetic cellphone conversations in hallways and half-empty pizza boxes marked a day in which some bill sponsors were forced to admit even they didn’t know the full implications of the policies they were carrying.
A teetering plan to address the shortfall by splitting it into thirds -- with $76 million coming in cuts from Bullock, combined with $75 million from tax increases and $75 million in fund transfers approved by the Legislature -- hung in the balance.
Bullock immediately implemented the cuts he had proposed, notifying the House minutes before it convened at noon. The House also gave a tentative nod to the portion of the package that includes fund transfers, with the bill approving several fund transfers clearing committee and reaching the House floor. Final House approval was expected late Tuesday.
Before the House voted on the fund transfers, known as House Bill 6, Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings, said the bill was “meant to put some of us in handcuffs.”
For Republican Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen, action on the bill was a positive sign.
“The fund transfers are moving, so that’s part of it,” he said.
Democrats were initially upset with bills by Republicans to transfer the funds and a bill to create a fund to accept $30 million that had been set aside to buy a private prison in Shelby. But late Tuesday, it appeared a deal had been struck with the governor's office to negotiate amendments or tweaks that would make the bills more palatable.
“If you look at the thirds, we are two-thirds of the way there,” said budget director Dan Villa.
Still, McCarthy called the bills a way for Republicans to box Democrats and the governor in. Republicans hold a 59-41 majority in the House and a 32-18 majority in the Senate.
McCarthy said the new appropriations bill, House Bill 2, would make the cuts imposed by Bullock permanent and prevent him from restoring funding if revenues come in higher than expected.
“That means if we get money in over and above what we anticipate, there is no way to backfill any of the programs, even if we’re sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars.”
There is a bill to unwind the cuts, called Senate Bill 9, but it’s tied to the state accepting $32 million from a the company that runs a private prison in Shelby in exchange for the state extending its contract.
“We’re really boxed in right now,” McCarthy said.
Knudsen said there was still no clarity on the proposal by CoreCivic, the prison operator. The state has paid into an escrow account since it started contracting with CoreCivic in 1999 to run the prison, which has beds for about 650 inmates. The company has proposed giving the state $32 million from that account to help with the budget problem in exchange for extending its contract, which is set to expire in 2019.
The prison issue had previously been one of the most contentious of the session, with Democrats strongly opposing it and Republicans calling it a deal-breaker. While the Legislature cannot renegotiate the contract, it is working to put the governor in a position where it would be difficult to turn down the money. Rep. Rob Cook, a Republican from Conrad who has supported the prison deal, said Senate Bill 9 would apply $15 million of the money from the prison toward the fire fund and let the governor choose how to use half of the rest.
Other action taken Tuesday by Republicans to expand the scope of the session included pitches to furlough state employees and a bill that would do away with a rule by the state health department to allow people who are transgender to change the gender on their birth certificate.
On the bill to generate at least $15 million through employee furloughs, Republicans had to vote three times before they had the support to pass it. Rep. Kenneth Holmlund, R-Miles City, was a no, but switched after Knudsen, the House speaker, came into the committee room and spoke with him. Rep. Rob Cook and Rep. Jon Knokey also switched their votes to eventually pass the measure.
Sen. Albert Olszewski also proposed halting a change made by the Department of Public Health and Human Services to use the word "gender" instead of "sex" on birth certificates, saying it would cost extra money.
Confusion about the content of bills reigned over the day, with many lawmakers saying it was difficult to track the content of rapidly drafted and changing legislation.
One bill that would have eliminated a massive number of income tax deductions was panned at the hearing, with even the bill's sponsor saying he didn’t know the full effect the legislation would have.
“This is not the way to run government,” said House Minority Leader Jenny Eck late Tuesday. “I hope the people of Montana are paying attention, because this could have been done in a much better way.”