Legislators still must pass budget as session nears end

HELENA (AP) — As the Montana Legislature enters the final days of the session, lawmakers are working on aspects of the state budget, possible preschool funding and a proposal to allow NorthWestern Energy to purchase an additional portion of a coal-fired power plant.
Republican Reps. Llew Jones and Nancy Ballance said they expect to adjourn Thursday — which would be five days early.
Ballance said Tuesday she planned to bring the $10.3 billion budget bill to the House floor Wednesday, after two related bills are heard.
Conference committees are scheduled Wednesday morning on those bills — one that could include preschool funding and another to set rules for the governor to access a budget stabilization fund before having to make budget cuts in the case of declining revenues.
It remains to be seen whether lawmakers can reach an agreement on a provision to allow NorthWestern to buy power and transmission capacity at Colstrip.
“I’ll work with Democrats and Republicans, anybody, if they want to get the bill to my desk,” Gov. Steve Bullock said last week. “And I always prefer that they try to work with me before they just get it to my desk.”
The Democrat said he’d support the bill if he believes it is good public policy, but he declined to say what language he would like to see in the Colstrip bill.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso said he wasn’t sure where things stood with the Colstrip effort on Tuesday.
“I had high hopes over the weekend that the governor and the sponsors were trying to find a spot where they could get to that everybody could support on behalf of the Colstrip community,” Sesso said. “And it’s been crickets since yesterday.”
A conference committee had not been appointed Tuesday afternoon to discuss the bill that could be used to include the Colstrip language.
One of Bullock’s top priorities was continuing funding for public preschool programs, but bills addressing that have died.
If negotiators can reach an agreement on preschool, the funding could be included in one of the remaining bills, Sesso said.
“There’s no reason to put it in there if there are not enough votes to pass it,” Sesso said.
When Jones, a key negotiator in the Legislature, was asked about efforts to move preschool and Colstrip legislation he said: “There seems to be ongoing discussions. I don’t know if it’s getting anywhere.”