HELENA — Montana Democrats attempted on Thursday to restore proposed cuts to government agencies and programs over the next two years but were repeatedly rejected by Republican lawmakers who hold a majority of the votes.
The Republican-controlled Legislature is trying to fix a shortfall in the state budget by cutting spending, and GOP lawmakers so far are resisting proposals by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to ease the cuts by raising some taxes. The House Appropriations Committee is making its changes to the 2018-2019 budget on Thursday and Friday, after which the budget plan will go to the House floor for a vote.
The Republican leaders of the committee have taken a hard line against adding back any money that was cut by budget subcommittees earlier in the session.
The Democratic members of the committee tried unsuccessfully to restore funding and personnel cut from some agencies, including the Montana National Guard, the Department of Labor and Industry, the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices and even the tiny state Division of Architecture and Engineering.
Republicans also rejected giving the state’s six regional hazardous materials response teams $65,000 that would have generated another $65,000 in federal matching funds. A 2015 audit found the state is unable to quickly respond to HAZMAT emergencies in the far reaches of the state, and that there aren’t enough firefighters properly trained and equipped to respond in those areas.
Democrats also sought to give money back to programs that are mostly funded through special revenue accounts or by the federal government, and not by the state treasury. That includes the Montana National Guard Youth Challenge Program, a military-style program for at-risk teens, and a safety program meant to improve Montana’s near worst-in-the-nation ranking for workplace accidents.
“These cuts have done nothing to help us with our ending fund balance and a lot of these are important programs,” said Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings. “It’s illogical to cut them.”
Republican members acknowledged the importance of the programs but rejected the proposals, anyway. Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, said some of them could be restored at a later date in the Senate or during final budget negotiations between the House and Senate, if the state’s revenue picture looks better at that point.
There were some notable exceptions. The committee added $500,000 a year to the court system to pay for court-appointed special advocates who represent the interests of abused and neglected children, and it also planned to reinstate some funding for the state Department of Revenue.
The committee also restored $589,400 for the governor’s use of a state airplane over the next two years. An earlier version of the budget had completely cut the governor’s travel by state aircraft, and instead increased money for commercial flights and state vehicles.
Tschida, who has been an outspoken critic of Gov. Steve Bullock’s use of the airplane for trips of less than 100 miles, supported returning the money and said he would personally look into how to reduce the cost of the air program at a later date.
Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel responded with a statement that said lawmakers should quickly pass an infrastructure bill and a budget that funds essential services.
“It’s about time Republicans in the Legislature move on from petty politics like this,” Abel said.