Gov. Bullock outlines goals and challenges for year ahead

Posted at 5:01 PM, Feb 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-07 19:01:10-05

Gov. Steve Bullock, entering the second year of his final term, says the state needs more revenue to fund vital services and should stick with an expanded Medicaid program that’s brought health coverage to 91,000 low-income adults in Montana.

But in a wide-ranging interview this week with MTN News about his 2018 agenda, Bullock offered few specifics on how he plans to achieve these goals.

The Democratic governor said he’s “looking at” changes that could generate more tax revenue next year, but didn’t indicate what form those changes may take or what he’d propose.

He also said he’s “had discussions with folks” about funding Medicaid expansion beyond 2019, but didn’t identify any potential solutions.

“I think that as far as extending Medicaid and paying for it, certainly we’ll be looking at it over the next several months, into the next legislative session, the best way to go about it,” he told MTN News on Tuesday.

Medicaid expansion, approved by the Legislature in 2015, is scheduled to expire next year unless the Republican-controlled Legislature votes to extend it. The Legislature isn’t scheduled to meet again until January 2019.

Some leading Republicans lawmakers have asked how the state will be able to pay its multimillion-dollar share of the state-federal program, going forward.

Bullock also said he’s distressed about the $76 million in state budget cuts his administration must now make to cover a revenue shortfall, but that the GOP-led Legislature gave him few options when it approved the cuts during a special session last November.

“Rather than letting me exercise the authority of making cuts and then, if there are additional revenues, to decide where to backfill those, the Legislature actually voted to make all of those cuts law,” he said. “So they hamstrung my ability to mitigate those cuts in many, many ways.”

Last week, a top Republican lawmaker said Bullock does have some options to mitigate the cuts, such as freeing up additional revenue by extending a private-prison contract or making changes if other revenue comes in higher than expected.

Bullock strongly disputed both of those points Tuesday.

He said the Republican majority in the Legislature not only refused to consider revenue increases to prevent some of the cuts, but also made sure that even if tax revenue does come in better than expected this year, it can’t be used until this fall to offset any spending cuts.

And on the prison contract, Bullock said he’s not going to rush into an extension without making sure it’s a good deal for the state.

“We don’t want to end up entering into a long-term contract that, at the end of the day, Montanans don’t need,” he said.

The state contract with CoreCivic, which owns and operates the prison near Shelby that houses 600 state inmates, expires in mid-2019.

CoreCivic has indicated that if the state would extend the contract, the company would transfer as much as $32 million to the state. Republican lawmakers approved a bill during the special session that would allow the state to use half the money to offset budget cuts – if Bullock takes steps to get the money.

Bullock told MTN News this week that the state needs more tax revenue to “pay for those services that Montanans expect,” and mentioned a pair of proposals that he floated last year: Raising state income taxes on earnings over $500,000 and doubling the license fee for investment advisers. The latter proposal would bring in $13 million, he said.

Republican lawmakers rejected both ideas, during the regular and special legislative sessions.

Bullock said his administration would be examining “some of the smaller piecemeal and other things that we ought to be doing” on revenue increases, but wouldn’t identify any specific approach or proposal he plans to pursue.

“This will be a process that we’ll be looking at, over the upcoming months, going into the 2019 (Legislature), but of all the specific pieces, no, we don’t have that ironed out,” he said.

MTN News also asked Bullock about his political future, and whether he’s considering a possible run for president in 2020 – as some in political circles have suggested.

Bullock replied that “2020 is a long way away,” and that he has a job now that he enjoys and takes up his time – but didn’t rule out a presidential run.

“I’m a year into my second term,” he said. “I’m not figuring out what I’m going to be doing once I’m done with this job.”

Bullock, 51, formed a national political action committee, Big Sky Values PAC, that raised $464,000 last year and financed travels for him to New York, San Francisco, Phoenix, Austin, Texas and other locales, for speeches and fundraisers.

He’s also set to become chair of the National Governor’s Association this year.

Bullock said when he travels, he talks primarily about “some real, good things that have happened in Montana” during his administration, and how he’s worked with both political parties to achieve his goals.

He said his immediate political goals are to help Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester get re-elected and perhaps help elect legislators to the 2019 Legislature that will “share my values.”