HELENA – Although he’s no longer speaker of the House, former Montana Republican legislator Mike Milburn pays close attention to what’s happening in the statehouse from his farm near Cascade.
So far, he has noticed a lot of talk about fiscal responsibility. Contentious debates over issues like workers’ compensation, nullifying federal laws and medical marijuana were commonplace in the Capitol two years ago.
“Last session, we were a little more policy driven,” Milburn said. “What they are looking at (this session) is balancing the budget, keeping taxes low and keeping regulations low.”
Both the House and Senate have passed bills to reduce the property tax on equipment for small businesses. During the remainder of the session, lawmakers must decide the best way to move forward on the two proposals.
Legislators have also looked at several ideas to reduce the tax burden on property owners. After having cleared the House, the Senate will now consider a measure to lower property taxes by more than $50 million per year statewide.
Carol Williams, a Democrat from Missoula who served as last session’s Senate minority leader, agrees that the focus in 2013 is on fiscal affairs. Moving forward, she anticipates debates over the state’s budget.
With a more than $400 million surplus this session, she said arguments for cuts to health care, social service and education programs hold less validity than they did during the 2011 Legislature. She’s watching to see where spending priorities fall this time.
“We have money in the bank, and I’m going to be interested to see if the Republicans are going to fund infrastructure issues in Eastern Montana,” Williams said.
The mayor of Sidney has already seen several proposals fall by the wayside, so he’s hoping lawmakers will give a green light to other ideas, including redirecting federal mineral royalties to towns in the Bakken, establishing a tax on beds in motels and man camps, and providing a direct allocation in the state budget to towns affected by oil activity.
That money would help cover new water and sewage systems, but Mayor Bret Smelser said his city also needs funding for more police officers and equipment to fight fires.
“I’m pretty positive we will get some kind of results,” Smelser said. “But will they be enough, and will they be timely enough?”
As lawmakers discuss what to do about infrastructure, they will also debate other spending measures, including state employee pay, construction projects at colleges, expanding Medicaid and funding public education.
Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT teacher’s union, called the Senate’s approval of a major education funding bill “a very positive sign,” but he expects a tough battle in the House over the $120 million in additional money it proposes to send to schools.
The bill, sponsored by a Republican senator, drew votes from both parties, including all Democrats and 12 Republicans. Feaver said the vote showed the divide between Republican leaders in the Senate, who voted against the measure, and more moderate members of their party.
“This bill did not cause the divide,” he said. “This just happens to be the biggest bill that has hit the floor.”
He expects to see the split reveal itself again during the second half of the session as the Senate debates the state’s budget and other fiscal measures.
Williams said the divide could help ensure that other moderate Republican ideas supported by Democrats pass out of the Senate.
Despite the attention on fiscal affairs, advocates for social issues continue to debate bills on school choice, guns, abortion and gay rights.
“The social issues actually drive the fiscal issues,” said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation. “Whenever you have anything on the social side that leads to a weakening or a breaking down of family structure (it) always shows up on the fiscal side in terms of welfare, incarceration rates or medical expenses.”
Many of the bills his organization supports have received approval from either the House or Senate. Those include measures to provide tax credits to families whose children attend private school, to require parental consent for minors seeking abortions and to criminalize assaults on pregnant women that result in the death of an unborn child.
Laszloffy hopes the governor will sign those bills. If that doesn’t happen, he said he will support efforts to send some of those measures directly to voters.
On issues like gay rights, Montana Human Rights Network lobbyist Jamee Greer said the rhetoric this session is less hateful than two years ago. Even so, he said he feels there hasn’t been ample time devoted to hearings on measures like House Bill 481, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. The bill failed after a brief hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.
“We know that not every bill is going to get five hours,” Greer said. “But when you’re talking about basic human rights, 15 minutes is a little extreme.”
With the second half of the session here, Greer said much of his work will focus on the budget and effort to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income Montanans.
Lobbyists and lawmakers alike are gearing up for battles over fiscal matters before the Legislature adjourns on April 27.
Milburn, for one, awaits the push on those issues from the governor’s office.
Williams predicted that Republicans will be able to work with the new governor, although ideological differences will likely show themselves toward the end of the session.
One thing’s for certain as the session heats up: Just like those who walk the halls of the statehouse every day, people from Missoula to Sidney know what’s at stake, and they’re keeping a close eye on Helena.