Montana Democrats Promise Fight Over CHIP Cuts

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Democrats promised Monday to stand firm against Republican plans to undo an expansion of the children’s health insurance plan, while GOP leaders insisted they will stand by the cuts.

The budget battle over the Children’s Health Insurance Program expansion approved last fall by voters is shaping up to the biggest area of disagreement as budget plans head to the Senate floor for debate Thursday.

“We are going to have a good discussion in the Senate,” promised Minority Leader Carol Williams. “But it is going to be an uphill battle because they have dug in their feet and they don’t want to budge.”

And Democrats, in organizational control of the House, promised they wouldn’t be budging on the CHIP issue either.

“Obviously this is one where we will dig our heels in,” said House Speaker Bob Bergren.

On Friday, a committee controlled by Republicans advanced a budget that took about $30 million out of the CHIP expansion.

Under the GOP move, the state would increase eligibility to 200 percent of poverty level instead of the 250 percent approved in Initiative 155. Right now, families making up to 175 percent of poverty qualify.

If the full Senate approves the idea, the issue heads to a House split 50-50 between the parties.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Peterson said he believes he has the votes in a chamber controlled by Republicans 27-23 to fight off efforts to restore full funding of I-155 on Thursday. He said the GOP wants to maintain the $100 million-plus cuts it made to the House version of the budget.

“No one wants to see children go without health insurance,” Peterson said. “The issue is spending money we don’t have and keeping a structurally balanced budget.”

Peterson said he doesn’t know how negotiations would go with the House over the issue.

Sen. John Brueggeman of Polson was the only Republican on the Senate Finance Committee to vote against the CHIP cut on Friday. He said he wants to pitch a compromise that would enact full I-155 funding of CHIP, but do so over several years to soften the blow.

“I think we still have to find a way to fund CHIP this session,” he said. “I think it could turn into a serious sticking point if we don’t reach a compromise.”

And Bergren, waiting for the Senate to return its version of the budget, said all the Senate changes opens the door to some give and take on the entire spending package.

“I think there is a lot of room to negotiate,” Bergren said. “We’re not done yet.”

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