Republicans propose raising the bar to pass some legislation

HELENA (AP) — Some Montana lawmakers want to make it more difficult to transfer cash out of the state’s fire suppression fund after $30 million went to shore up the state budget in 2017, just before Montana experienced its most expensive fire season ever.

That bill and another measure to restrict tax increases would require a two-third vote of the Legislature, instead of the simple majorities now needed.

Democrats argue the bills could limit the government’s ability to respond to the next financial crisis.

House Speaker Greg Hertz is sponsoring the bill on the fire fund.

“I went after that bill because in ’17 I think we all realize we made a poor choice of taking $30 million out of the fire fund,” the Republican said.

The House Natural Resources Committee heard the bill Monday.

Rep. Zach Brown, a Democrat, argued the bill wouldn’t have prevented that $30 million transfer in 2017 because it was approved by more than two-thirds of the Legislature.

“Going forward this will at least let us stop and pause,” Hertz said.

Earlier this month, the House passed a bill to require a two-thirds vote before implementing any new or increased tax or fee.

“This just kind of forces us to live within our means, just like every Montana family,” Hertz said.

Hertz and tax bill sponsor Forrest Mandeville said the bill would not prevent tax increases. It gets a hearing in the Senate Taxation Committee Thursday.

“There should be a high threshold (in deciding) whether or not to burden our constituents with new or higher taxes,” Mandeville said. “If fees need to be increased in something that’s important that was widely agreed to, I don’t see how this bill would create any problems for that.”

Democrats questioned their motives.

“If it wasn’t anything but a political gimmick, you’d make it a two-thirds vote to reduce taxes,” House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner said. The bill could block the state’s effort to study and possibly adjust its overall tax structure, Schreiner said.

Bob Gilbert, a lobbyist and former Republican representative, called the tax proposal bad policy. He said any bill to increase taxes already has to pass both houses and be approved by the governor.

“We have this safety net built and it works on a simple majority,” Gilbert told the committee. “Why is this a big need, unless it’s a power thing?”

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Gov. Steve Bullock proposes leaving a $300 million surplus in the next two-year budget while Republicans propose $210 million. Montana’s Budget Stabilization Fund — another repository for rainy day money — contains nearly $46 million.