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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Panel Gives Schools, Public Defenders Budget Boosts

Montana Legislature Senate chambers.
Nick Mott
Montana Public Radio
Montana Legislature Senate chamber.

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana Senate committee voted Thursday to give additional funding to schools and the public defender's office while restoring some money to the state Department of Revenue to better serve taxpayers and collect revenue.

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee voted 18-1 to pass a $10.3 billion budget for the next two years. The bill advances to the full Senate.

Committee members voted to add $6.25 million to the education budget to account for an increased number of public school students and the opening of new high schools in East Helena and Laurel, for total spending of just over $2 billion.

They rejected an amendment seeking $22 million for a preschool program after the bill authorizing the program — which is strongly endorsed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock — was tabled in the House Education Committee on Wednesday.

Lawmakers added $2 million to the Office of Public Defender, for total funding of $74.5 million, and they still weren't sure if that would be enough.

"I have some sense that we have done some very good work here, but I still think we have left some holes that I think everybody has to understand could result in supplementals," said Democratic Sen. Jon Sesso, the Minority Leader.

Sesso said he was glad the committee was able to freeze college tuition, but wished they could have done more to help fund higher education.

The committee voted to restore four jobs in the Department of Revenue, noting staffing shortages there could lead to reduced tax revenue.

Committee members voted against repeated efforts to restore funding and some jobs to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which has a $4.3 billion proposed two-year budget. The House budget cut 100 full-time jobs from about 400 that have been left open and Republicans on the Finance and Claims committee said the agency still has plenty of funding to hire additional positions.

"I think that overall the agencies have been treated fairly and I really respect all the work of the subcommittee," Sesso said.

Both Sesso and Republican Sen. Bob Keenan noted that because the bill is moving ahead of schedule they need to be vigilant in ensuring that money approved in policy bills is included in the budget bill.

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