Montana Lawmakers Beat Back Proposed Changes to Spending Plan

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers beat back proposed changes to the state’s main spending plan during house debate Monday, holding together a carefully crafted compromise that is headed to the Senate.

The budget bill, endorsed in the House by a 64-35 margin, would increase spending from the state’s general fund about 2 percent for each of the next two years, and has reserves of about $250 million. It does not include the $800 million of federal stimulus money that hits committee later this week — and that is drawing attention away from the main spending bill.

House Bill 2 hit the House floor Monday and Republican House Leader Scott Sales of Bozeman proposed two dozen or so amendments to the proposed spending plan.

The measure came out of the House Appropriations Committee, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, on a voice vote with no debate. Members of both parties said historic bipartisanship led to a quick resolution of a normally testy issue.

Sales’ cuts included an effort to get rid of the governor’s airplane, trim the food and hospitality budget for the governor’s mansion, and trim back several pieces of the Department of Justice. Proposed education cuts were as small as $1,300 to slice out per diem expense reimbursement for the volunteer Board of Public Education and ran up to several million dollars in other parts.

But Sales was only about to consistently get 34 to 37 of his colleagues to vote with him. The chamber is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.

The day was noteworthy compared to past floor sessions for House Bill 2, where arguments over spending plans could last late into the night. This time, few other than Sales offered changes and everyone seem to recognize the Republican leader’s plans didn’t stand a chance in the face of the compromise.

This year is also different because the lawmakers will have $800 million in extra federal money to play with.

But Sales argued the state needs to cut core spending in the face of a recession that could cause tax collections to come in far below what is expected.

“I am fearful for the future generations of Montana that we have built a house of cards that we can’t afford,” Sales said.

All 50 Democrats opposed cuts to the plan, joined by more than a dozen Republican lawmakers.

Members of the appropriations panel said it is too late to change a compromise that took a lot of negotiation to reach. There was very little debate on each of the proposed cuts.

The measure spends a total of $8.1 billion over the next two years, with $3.3 billion in state tax money. Spending goes up $141 million over the last two-year budget period.

As usual, education takes up about half of the spending, with human services and corrections taking up the bulk of the rest. Most of the new spending also goes to education.

The plan promises about $65 million less than Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s latest proposal, which he trimmed back in December as the recession’s effects started to hit.

An attempt by Rep. Tom McGillvray to cut back funding for the voter-approved expansion of the Children’s Health insurance Program brought a little more discussion.

The Billings Republican argued I-155’s expansion of the program to include those earning up to 250 percent of poverty level shifts state resources from the needy to families that can earn well over $50,000 a year.

“I know I am here bucking a 70 percent vote (on the initiative). I am not stupid,” he said. “But it’s time that politicians both in Washington and in Montana decide to do what’s right. We don’t have an open checkbook for everything.”

Democrats and some Republicans argued that voters knew exactly what they were doing when they endorsed it.

“The voters were clear about kids in Montana, they want kids in Montana to be covered,” said Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena.

Republican Walter McNutt of Sidney defended the compromise package to a morning meeting of Republicans prior to the floor votes.

“We tried for more. But this is a 50-50 House,” McNutt said. “Is it a perfect package? I have never seen a perfect House Bill 2.”

Lawmakers said the GOP-controlled Senate is sure to change the measures, especially in light of Friday’s news that revenue projections for the state are dropping another $40 million.

“I’m sure we will see this baby back in conference committee and discuss this more,” said House Speaker Bob Bergren, D-Havre.

The measure faces one more non-debatable vote in the House Tuesday before it goes to the Senate.