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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Early Education Funding Fails To Make The Cut In Senate Budget

State budgets.

The Republican-controlled Senate today gave preliminary approval to the state’s main budget bill. The GOP majority allowed only a few technical amendments and resisted attempts by Democrats to add additional funding or programs to House Bill 2. This includes a Bullock Administration proposal to fund early childhood education.
The proposal sought to add $37 million in the coming biennium for early childhood education. Governor Steve Bullock calls the initiative Early Edge.

Republican Senator Llew Jones chairs the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. Jones says he supports pre-K education, but the farmer from Conrad is worried rural communities – like his – will be negatively impacted because the Board of Public Education has said these classes have to be taught by a certified teacher.

"We can’t get certified teachers in these small communities in Math. We can’t get them in English," Sen. Jones said.

Let alone in early childhood education, he says.

"I am not opposed to early education or for that matter any education that helps students," Jones said. "In fact I’m an ardent supporter of it. We can’t impact these rules because the Board of Public Education drew the box. And they said this is the box we have to live in. I’m not happy with this box. Until this box changes I am not a supporter of this version of Early Edge."

The state has to start somewhere, argues Democratic Senator Brad Hamlett, a rancher from Cascade.

"I agree with Senator Jones that if this was put in and its part of the discussion at the end then it can be about reconvening the Board of Public Education or putting parameters that allow smaller schools options that they need to participate."

But the amendment failed on a 29-to-21 party line vote. It had the same fate as other Democratic amendments to add dollars to the budget as it emerged from the Senate Finance Committee.

Panel members added just over $50 million to the version of House Bill 2 that was transmitted over from the House.

Senate Majority Leader Matt Rosendale says the state budget has taken an important step forward.

"While I recognize that everyone is not getting 100% of what they want, we have made great strides."

Rosendale says he appreciates the decorum and professionalism displayed on the Senate Floor during the just over four hour debate on the budget.

And Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso says hopefully the Senate made the bill better, he adds there’s a lot of work still left to be done.

"And I hope that nobody contends that our work is done," Sesso said. "There are some significant holes in the budget that need to be fixed."

Sesso says that includes addressing a state pay plan.

State Budget Director Dan Villa adds other issues that may impact the budget also are awaiting final legislative action. This includes the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Water Compact, Medicaid Expansion contained in Senate Bill 405, as well as the other surviving bills that require an appropriation.

"We’re eager to get down to what will those final negotiations look like and how can we make sure we have a good budget for all Montanans," Villa said.

House Bill 2 faces a third and final vote. Because of the Senate amendments it will return to the House, where typically Representatives reject the changes. That will send the bill to a Conference Committee to work out the differences.

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