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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Senate Committee Restores Some Funding Cut By House

The Montana Capitol
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee added about $55 million of general fund dollars back into the state budget. That’s according to preliminary figures from the Legislative Fiscal Division.

Not quite half of that amount was to cover cost over-runs in the current biennium.

This year’s cost overruns total about $31 million.

On Monday, House Republicans  on a party line vote rejected efforts to bring House Bill 3 to the floor for debate, effectively killing the bill. So agencies were looking to the Senate. Finance and Claims Chair Llew Jones.

"This process is sausage making. I can tell you a week ago I didn’t know we had to work on some of those issues. When we found out we had to deal with some of those issues we found a way to deal with ‘em," Jones said. "That’s part of the process and while I’m pleased, the supplemental is certainly going to need some adjustment."

Preliminary figures from the Legislative Fiscal Division say the Finance committee’s actions added about $24 million to cover the cost overruns.

Affected areas:  public schools, the Department of Corrections, the Office of Public Defenders, and the settlement for the asbestosis liability in Libby.

This week, a memo from the state school superintendent warned local officials about potential budget cuts and it  sent many schools scrambling.

"I would argue that the concerns being were maybe being blown out of proportion a little bit," said Jones. "That this is not the first time that the supplemental has gone up and down and I recognize a little theater was being done with the supplemental and I guess that’s part of the process too, but I do begin worrying when the theatre does begin worrying people’s lives."

Executive action on House Bill 2 was smoothed by the off-line negotiations before the members took their chairs yesterday morning.

"Chairman Jones and I were freshman legislators together in 2005," said state Budget Director Dan Villa, "so we go way back and it speaks to the rapport Gov. Bullock has built with folks across the aisle. He has been a successful governor managing the most fiscally responsible state in the nation. He certainly, through his relationship with responsible Republicans has been able to govern the state very well."

As for Jones, he says he and the Republican Senate leaders met, talked, and worked with the Democratic Caucus and the Bullock Administration. He says there have been good discussions throughout the process.

"All of the folks aren’t jumping up and down with joy with this bill either," said Jones. "But we are trying to move towards a product that satisfies everyone. Hopefully the governor is somewhat happier. I’m sure in his mind it’s not quite a failing product but it moved up the scale a little bit. In our minds its got a lot of ways to move up as well. I’m sure in the minority caucus its got a ways to move up, but I do believe some good work was done today."

Preliminary numbers from the Legislative Fiscal Division show the Finance Committee added $31 million from the state’s general fund into House Bill 2. And including the supplemental dollars, that makes the bill $55 million over what had emerged from the House.

Both Jones and Villa say while they’re pleased with the progress so far, there’s much left to be done.

Lawmakers now have a four day break for the Easter Holiday.

House Bill 2 is expected to be debated on the Senate Floor next Thursday.

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