Montana Public Radio

State Budget Clears First Hurdle With No Democratic Votes

Mar 19, 2019

A $10.3 billion state budget cleared an initial vote in the Montana House of Representatives this afternoon, without any support from Democrats.

When state lawmakers walked into the legislative session earlier this year they were in the unusual situation of having watched the last state budget, passed in 2017, collapse.

Building the budget back into the black resulted in the first special legislative session in a decade, and public outcry over cuts to health care programs that receive state dollars.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Tuesday said the new budget isn’t what any of them really want, but it’s close.

Republicans have trimmed down Governor Steve Bullock’s general fund spending request by about a 1 percent, or nearly $45 million. The general fund is essentially Montana’s main checking account. It’s the source much of the Legislature’s political fighting, and it’s mostly funded by income taxes. 

Representative Nancy Ballance is the Republican Chair of House Appropriations.

Rep. Nancy Ballance (R) - Hamilton.
Credit Mike Albans

"We made the decision not to raise taxes, we are structurally balanced, we left an operating reserve of $214 million with a small amount remaining to do the work that we have yet to do."

Ballance says the small amount remaining in operating reserves that can be spent is only around $5 million. However that number could change quickly as some bills taking up funding are altered or die in the final weeks leading up to April 1, when all appropriation bills must pass over to the Senate.

Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, a Democrat from Great Falls, says several of their priorities were left out of the sending package, including public education and jobs in the state health department.

"We had an opportunity today to solve some of these problems, to lead with solutions, and we didn’t do that."

The budget approved by the House does not included funding for Governor Bullock’s proposed public preschool program. Republicans say they have their own preschool policy that has yet to be introduced.

Republicans also cut a number of vacant positions within state health department and other state agencies. While Democrats say this could result in a loss of critical services, Republicans say they targeted the funding cuts to positions that had been unfilled for more than a year.  The Legislature’s budget funds 200 fewer state positions than requested by the governor.

Four Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the budget vote Tuesday.