Mont. lawmakers enter final week eyeing big pieces

Final week starts with wrangling over potential tax cuts, finalization of pension fix in Mont.

Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Montana legislators entered the final week with high hopes of reaching quick agreement on the major pieces of the budget that are nearing resolution.

The House on Monday finalized one of the bills aimed at fixing the troubled pensions systems, and advanced the other pension fix to a final vote on Tuesday. The measures ask both employees and employers to pay more, while also reducing benefits a little.

Lawmakers also spent Monday hashing out proposed tax-cut bills, and negotiating with Gov. Steve Bullock on the size off the cuts. The leading measure would reduce the business equipment tax, likely with an exemption for smaller companies and a reduced rate for others.

State Sen. Bruce Tutvedt of Kalispell told a committee charged with resolving House and Senate differences that he is waiting to find out how much tax relief the governor's office will accept. Leaders from each chamber were meeting with Bullock's office late Monday to discuss the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich took a dim view of the developing compromise on tax cuts that was a high priority for Republicans. Wittich said he expects the cuts will be so small it won't be worth the effort.

Wittich also has a one-time income tax cut of $40 million that is going to the House floor after a House committee approved it, but he said there is almost no chance it makes it through the process. The majority leader, who has sparred with members of his own party who have been working with Democrats on a slate of bills, said it is "shameful" that spending priorities have outpaced the desire to cut taxes.

"I think Montanans can spend their money way better than government can," Wittich said.

House Speaker Mark Blasdel, a Somers restaurant owner, took a more optimistic view. The Republican said he thinks the business equipment tax cut will be a noteworthy accomplishment.

He said lawmakers are also waiting to hear from the governor's office what the specific issues are with the main budget bill, House Bill 2. Blasdel said Republican leaders will wait to send it to the governor until there is agreement on what changes he will seek. The governor has threatened a veto but not specified his issues.

"I don't think we are that far off," Blasdel said. "I am looking forward to a smooth finish, and I think everything is on track."

The governor also revived his plans for tougher restrictions on so-called "dark money" in politics. Bullock stuffed the language into a bill dealing with a small section of campaign finance law, a suggestion that lawmakers will have to address later in the week.

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