Full Montana House approves state main budget after day-long debate

HB 2 projects approximately $ 12.6 billion in state spending over the next two years, from general fund, state special revenue, and federal money. Members of the House appropriations committee have been developing the bill for weeks. (Jonathan Ambrarian / KPAX image)

(KPAX) HELENA – On Monday, Montana House met all day to consider a single bill – but it was a huge one. They held a full day of debate on House Bill 2, the main state budget bill.

Lawmakers then passed Bill 67-33 in a party line vote, with support from Republicans and Democrats in opposition.

HB 2 projects approximately $ 12.6 billion in state spending over the next two years, from general fund, state special revenue, and federal money. Members of the House appropriations committee have been developing the bill for weeks.

“Bill 2 is literally hundreds of hours of credit committee work and a very, very dedicated staff,” said Republican Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad, who chairs the committee.

Before any amendments, Jones said the budget was about $ 400 million lower than Gov. Greg Gianforte’s original proposal.

“I am very proud of the work accomplished by this committee in the search for efficiency and gains”, he declared.

Democrats on the Appropriations Committee said they still had issues with the version of HB 2 that was presented, but felt the budget process had been positive.

“While this budget has a bit of a way to go, it’s a very good start,” said Democratic Representative Mary Caferro d’Helena, vice-chair of the committee.

HB 2, being the largest and most important bill in the session, is treated differently from any other bill. It is divided into five sections: public administrations. education, natural resources and transportation, corrections and public safety, and public health and social services.

On Monday, the chairs of the supply subcommittees that worked on each section of the budget presented overviews of the proposed spending. Lawmakers then proposed and voted on amendments to these articles. Once they completed each section, it was “closed” meaning that no further changes could be made on the floor.

Most of the discussion centered on Section B, Public Health and Human Services – by far the largest section of the budget, at around $ 6 million. On Monday afternoon, Democrats introduced a series of nine amendments attempting to restore or increase Section B funding.

“There are a few issues we could do better, and hopefully we will,” Caferro said. “We have left many services and programs without funding for a number of different reasons. Hope we will fix these issues in the future. “

The proposals included providing an additional $ 1 million for suicide prevention, returning $ 10 million to allow people benefiting from the Medicaid expansion to maintain coverage for a full year, and recovery for 1, $ 2 million for the STARS to Quality program to support and enhance early childhood programs.

Republicans said they took an in-depth look at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services budget this session. They said the changes they made were aimed at balancing the services provided by DPHHS and making the agency more efficient.

“We came into this with a real idea of ​​service, trying to increase service to the people of Montana just like we did by reducing bureaucracy,” said Rep. Matt Regier, a Republican from Kalispell.

All of the Democratic Section B amendments failed on party line or quasi-party line votes.

The majority of Republicans on Monday approved a major “global” amendment, which would force a number of state agencies to make further cuts in personnel costs. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Bill Mercer, a Republican from Billings, would increase “vacancy savings” – a reduction in the budget to account for authorized positions that are unfilled – from 4% to 5%. The 67 Republicans all supported the change, while all Democrats voted against.

Mercer said the amendment reduced general fund spending by about $ 4.5 million over two years. It exempted the DPHHS, based on cuts that had already been made in that department, as well as the Bureau of Public Instruction, the State Public Defender’s Office and several smaller agencies.

Another notable change on Monday was that lawmakers cut several general fund votes for specific programs. Their intention is to offset this funding using federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act, the COVID stimulus bill.

Republican lawmakers also added more than $ 1 million to help Montana’s university system implement Bill 102 – the bill passed earlier this session to expand places where guns can be carried, especially on college campuses. However, the money will be withdrawn if the MUS challenges the bill in court.

The House also approved an additional $ 300,000 for the Montana Attorney General’s Office to add an attorney to focus on natural resource issues, such as Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s cancellation of permits. for the Keystone XL pipeline.

In the end, Minority House Leader Kim Abbott, a Democrat from Helena, said she could not support the bill at this time, in light of the choices the majority had made. .

“We had the opportunity today to invest our resources in jobs and economic opportunities for people across the state, and I think we missed some of those opportunities,” he said. she declared.

But Jones said he believes HB 2 is in good shape – although he said he would likely undergo many more changes before the session ends.

“This is a very solid and well thought out bill at the moment,” he said. “He must continue his journey.

HB 2 will have to pass a final vote in the House in the coming days before going to the Senate.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include the final vote, section B budget information, and additional quotes.

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