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The latest Montana politics, elections and Legislature news.

Debate Over Tight State Budget Moves To The House

Montana House of Representatives.
Montana Public Radio
Montana House of Representatives.

The state's biennial budget will get its first debate on the House floor Thursday, the next round of legislative struggle over the state's lighter-than-hoped-for pocket book, which came up short of initial projections largely because of declines in state revenue from sales of coal, oil and gas.

After a first round of spending cuts and denials of spending increases, late last week a Republican controlled committee passed a budget that Governor Steve Bullock is calling "unacceptable."

"The governor may decide the budget is inequitable and veto it," says Brad Hamlett, a senior Democrat in the House from Cascade.

Hamlett says if the governor sends the budget back to lawmakers, they could be in session for what he called a "long time."

Hamlett spoke at a press conference of minority representatives Wednesday afternoon, aimed at drumming up support for a slate of amendments Democrats will propose on the House floor starting Thursday.

"There is no way we could leave in good conscience, this session, with the budgets the way they are," says House Minority Leader Jenny Eck.

Eck says Democrats will propose around 30 amendments to add tens of millions of dollars back into the budget for the state's health department, higher education system and general government services.

Those include a series of tax increases, including an income tax hike on the wealthy.

Eck says if Republicans keep voting down their proposals:

"Then we need  to look at other sections, and I hope it doesn't come to that because we are under a very tight budget and there have been cuts made across the board, and for a lot of departments it is going to be hard. We'll have to move puzzle pieces around if it comes to that. I just honestly can't accept that."

But, Nancy Ballance, a Hamilton Republican who chairs the state's budget committee says the budget isn't likely to change:

"I would expect that we pass it how it is. I would expect that you'll see a lot of amendments come to the floor that may be some of the same amendments we saw on here. People are still going to want to talk about those. But I don't think on the floor you can make significant changes to a budget like this, there's just too many moving parts."

Before the state budget, known as House Bill 2, passed out of committee, lawmakers did add some money back in, including $11 million for higher education that if cut could have meant a rise in tuition at the state universities.

Lawmakers also voted to put a couple hundred thousand dollars back into the state health department budget for independent living assistance services.

Ballance says in tight budget years like this one, lawmakers have to look at what is essential to fund. The key issues there, she says, are education, health care, and corrections with funding to the judiciary:

"What is actually needed in the state, versus what do we actually want to do? And we get caught, sometimes in the good years we fund things that are great programs and they are good, and they are what people want, but sometimes we haven't fulfilled what the people need and then when we get into a year like this one where we start cutting back, or not increasing as much as we would like to, then you end up taking things away that people have gotten used to and that is really tough."

Balance says overall she thinks the budget came out of the committee pretty clean, and maybe, in her opinion, they might have even spent a little too much.

Democrats don't see it that way. The minority party will try on Thursday and maybe Friday, if debate lasts that long, to fill what they call gaps in funding for senior and long-term care in the health department, and in funding for education.

After the budget clears the House it will head to the Senate for approval, where Republicans, again, don’t see a need for major changes beyond what their party leaders are proposing.

One major unknown in the budgeting process is a new state revenue projection expected to be released soon. Ballance says Republicans want to send any increased revenue the state may receive into the state general fund, and not use it to fill what Democrats are calling funding gap.

Governor Steve Bullock, in his budget released last November, asked lawmakers give the general fund a $300 million ending balance. But Republicans say they expect that to end up closer to $200 million.

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