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Montana Legislature hung up on preschool, Colstrip in final moments

Posted at 10:22 PM, Apr 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-25 00:22:12-04

HELENA — Montana lawmakers Wednesday inched toward the finish line of the 2019 Legislature, but got hung up as members failed to reach an agreement on two key, unresolved issues: State funding for preschool and language that could encourage NorthWestern Energy to buy a bigger share of the Colstrip 4 power plant.

Republicans on a six-member, House-Senate conference committee on Wednesday morning rejected an attempt to insert a new state preschool program and its $16.8 million of funding into a budget bill.

The committee had planned to meet later Wednesday, after members sought a compromise that might include the Colstrip language. But the compromise failed to materialize and legislative leaders said the committee planned to meet again Thursday, which could be the final day of the 2019 Legislature.

Meanwhile, lawmakers on Wednesday did take steps toward wrapping up the state’s $10.3 billion, two-year budget and passing a bill that would authorize and finance a new, $48 million museum for the Montana Historical Society.

Once the constitutionally required budget is completed, lawmakers can adjourn whenever they choose — regardless of what other issues remain.

However, a key piece of the budget puzzle is Senate Bill 352 — the bill that would contain the preschool funding, and perhaps even the Colstrip language.

The conference committee on SB352 met Wednesday morning for about an hour, but after the attempt to insert preschool funding into the bill failed, the panel never met the rest of the day.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville and chair of the committee, told MTN News late Wednesday that lawmakers are still “kicking the tires” on a number of proposed compromises involving preschool and Colstrip.

Yet Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said he’s not sure that the Colstrip language could properly be inserted into a budget bill.

Earlier in the day, Sen. Tom Richmond, R-Billings, a lead sponsor of the original bill that contained the Colstrip language, tried to create a new committee that could insert the language into House Bill 22, which has an energy title. The title of a bill is supposed to match the contents of the bill.

But the full Senate rejected that request on a 28-21 vote.

Those who want NorthWestern Energy to buy a bigger chunk of the Colstrip coal-fired plant, and perhaps extend its life, have been searching for a vehicle for their language after the original bill, Senate Bill 331, was killed in the House late last week. Another possible vehicle, House Bill 597, remains alive, but leaders have not appointed a conference committee that’s needed to amend it with the Colstrip language.

Sesso and others also said that a scaled-back preschool funding proposal may be offered on Thursday, as an amendment to SB352.

Also Wednesday morning, the House Appropriations Committee voted 16-6 to support the bill that would fund the new Historical Society museum in Helena. That vote sends Senate Bill 338 back to the full House for one last final vote, likely on Thursday, before it could go to Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature.

The Historical Society has been trying for more than a decade to get authorization and funding for its new Heritage Center, which would house hundreds of artifacts and other material that the society has been storing in a warehouse outside of Helena.

SB338 raises the state lodging tax from 3 percent to 4 percent to raise money for the center, over the next five years. Twenty percent of the additional money also is dedicated to a new grant program for local historical sites and museums.