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Republican legislators have been reluctant to come back to the table in a special session needed to solve Montana’s fiscal crisis. It’s a crisis largely of their own making, but they’ve been remarkably cavalier about it. Austin Knudsen, the mulish termed-out Speaker of the House from Culbertson who repeatedly refused to negotiate with Bullock during the last legislative session, has said he doesn’t see why a special session is needed.

"There is a distinct lack of leadership from the executive branch, but my caucus will do what needs to be done to address the budget head-on while doing what Montanans elected us to do ... keeping in mind the taxpayers and those who utilize government services,” he said.

Knudsen saying Bullock has displayed a lack of leadership is hypocritical in the extreme. Unlike other key Republican legislative leaders like Sen. Llew Jones and Rep. Nancy Ballance, Knudsen has from the start of the Legislature’s regular session early this year shown no interest in working together with the governor to get to a good result for Montana. He’s been too busy throwing blame and saying “no.”

Bullock is, to our minds, taking a reasonable approach. He has identified some $76.6 million in cuts to state government that he will implement after the special session. He’s asking the Legislature to come up with the rest of the state’s $227 million shortfall – at least partly through some temporary tax increases.

It should be pointed out that the Legislature refused to deal with a projected shortfall during the session, relying on a too-rosy revenue projection they themselves devised, and rejecting revenue enhancements like increasing the tax on tobacco which would have helped significantly.

Now the bill is coming due.

Meanwhile, the Republicans in the Legislature have fixed on a new bright shiny object – an offer of $30 million in cash from the operators of a private prison in Shelby in exchange for a 10-year contract extension.

This feels strikingly like blackmail. Bullock is in the position of having to renegotiate a complex contract basically in a week – for beds there’s a good chance the state won’t even need a few years down the road – with the sword of Damocles over his head. That’s not a good way to handle the state’s business.

The deal, which has been lobbied hard to Republicans by prison operator CoreCivic, is like a payday loan for a cash-strapped consumer. We believe it’s a bad idea.

The bottom line: Montanans should demand conscientious work and collaboration in the Legislature this special session, not parroted talking points and refusal to take constructive action.

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