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Ever-shifting ‘companion bills’ part of final Montana budget talks

Posted at 8:10 PM, Apr 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-17 23:19:56-04

HELENA — A one-sentence bill that morphed into a nine-page, $38 million legislative behemoth is a key element of the 2019 Montana Legislature’s final budget dance — and so are a few other of these so-called “companion bills,” which have drawn a skeptical eye from some lawmakers.

“Keep your eyes on it,” said Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, moments before the state Senate on Wednesday sent the bill to a House-Senate conference committee, which could change the bill further. “This is when a lot of your bills, that may have met a demise and they may have had a little money in them, this is where we prioritize our session at the very end.”

Senate Bill 352, the $38 million measure now in a conference committee, is perhaps the biggest companion bill in the mix, as lawmakers attempt to wrap up the session and finalize state spending for the next two years.

But it’s not the only one. A few more remain in play, and they could end up as vehicles used by lawmakers to insert last-minute spending or pet projects that didn’t get approval in the regular process — or, in some cases, to complete the overall $10 billion budget, when loose ends are found untied in the main spending measure, House Bill 2.

The Legislature’s scheduled final day is May 1, but lawmakers have said they hope to finish a few days early.

On Wednesday, the Montana House had been scheduled to take an almost-final vote on HB2 Wednesday, but Republican leaders pulled it from the floor.

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, told MTN News that she wanted to make sure all of the companion bills are in order before completing HB2 and sending it to Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature or any other action.

SB352, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, was sent Wednesday to a six-person “free” conference committee. In a free conference committee, the three House and three Senate members — appointed by GOP leaders — can make any changes to the bill, if a majority of the committee members from each house agree.

Thomas told fellow senators Wednesday that the bill may need some of those unforeseen changes, to complete the budget picture.

That prompted a cautionary remark from Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, who said she hoped that any dramatic changes would be subject to public comment before they happen.

Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse

“I think when we go into these free conference committees on something that has such a broad title, I get little nervous,” she said. “I get a little nervous for the taxpayers of Montana, because I am concerned that they will not be part of the discussion, quite frankly.”

Thomas said if something completely new is added to the bill, it would have an opportunity for public comment “at the appropriate time.”

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, also said he felt that the companion bills are actually an improvement from days past, when a small group of people on a conference committee on HB2 would decide the final changes in the budget.

“Four of five people sat around a table and had two piles of bills — ones that were in, and ones that were out,” he said. “And that’s the way it was done, just 15 years ago. And now, because we’ve made a commitment to make sure this all done in the light of day, we have these companion bills.”

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte

As of Wednesday, a meeting for the SB352 conference committee had not bee scheduled.

SB352 was introduced March 22, as an “act implementing the provisions of the general appropriations act,” with one sentence transferring $100.

But Friday, the House Appropriations Committee heavily amended the bill, adding nine pages of more than 30 separate appropriations totaling $38 million. Almost all of the spending was tied to policy in numerous other separate bills, contingent on their passage. Most of them have passed — but some have not.

At least one of the appropriations — $1.1 million for a six-person drug interdiction team at the Montana Highway Patrol — was not tied to another bill, and simply authorizes the spending in SB352.

That money elicited a question or two on the Senate floor, about how it got in there.

Sen. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, said the Department of Justice had convinced certain lawmakers that the drug team should be funded.