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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Republicans Unite To Block Every Democratic Budget Amendment

Montana House chambers.
William Marcus

For the past two days, the Montana House was locked into something that resembled a scene out of the movie Groundhog Day. First, a member would stand up and introduce an amendment to the state budget.

For example, an amendment to add some money for the board of pardons and parole. Then there would be a short debate about the amendment. This would take anywhere from two minutes to an hour or more. And finally the amendment would be rejected on a party line vote.

And, back to square one.

And so on, and so on, a total of 73 times.

Amendments ranged from a few thousand dollars for a single department, to $700 million to expand Medicaid, or $37 million to introduce optional preschool programs statewide, both major parts of the Governor’s agenda. Every amendment was rejected, leaving the budget exactly as the Republican-controlled Appropriations Committee approved it.

This year’s budget process stands in marked contrast to the 2013 session, when a compromise budget came out of the House Appropriations Committee and was approved in a single unanimous vote.

What changed from last session to this one? Naturally, that depends on whom you ask. House minority leader Chuck Hunter says the Appropriations Committee, which reviewed Governor Steve Bullock’s budget proposal and turned it into a bill, refused to compromise with the minority.

Rep. Nancy Ballance (R) HD87
Credit Montana Legislature
Rep. Nancy Ballance (R) HD87

"Democrats were repeatedly rebuffed all throughout the process," Hunter said. "So when it came to the full bill, we felt like our only real option was to bring these amendments, the things that were our priorities for people, for economic development, for you name it to the floor, and express our interests on the floor, because they fell on deaf ears elsewhere."

Nancy Ballance, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, says Democrats weren’t stonewalled.  They just made their case, to the various budget subcommittees, and failed to convince the Majority to go along with their priorities.

"We do not stonewall. We vote the way we expect our constituents want us to vote. And sometimes one ends up in the minority, they may not like the way the vote goes, but we certainly do not stonewall and if you've ever sat through one of my committee meetings, you'll know that's not the case."

Democrats brought their long list of suggested changes to the budget to full Appropriations Committee, then to the full House, with the same result each time.  A flat “no” from the Republican side.  But even though the House passed the budget without a single Democratic amendment, that’s not the end of the story.  Next the bill goes to the Senate, considered the more moderate of the two houses.   Democratic leader Hunter predicts a different outcome in the other chamber.

"I would expect  those amendment all to be brought to the Senate, and to have the same discussion again. And quite frankly I expect many of them to be adopted in the Senate. I will tell you, behind the scenes here, many people on the Republican side certainly are saying, 'well they'll fix this in the Senate. And I expect that will be largely true.

Appropriations chair Nancy Ballance also admits the minority will not give up in its attempt to put back what her committee took out of the Governor’s budget proposal:

"Maybe some of these will come back, maybe not," Ballance said. I just, I don't know what to expect because, again, when we see them for the third time, we have to ask ourselves why are they bringing back the same ones back again unless its just for a show, I don't know."

The House gives final approval to the budget Friday afternoon, then it goes to the Senate, where the process of hearings and amendments starts over again.

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