House Largely Endorsing GOP Budget Plan

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The first pieces of the Republican budget plan made it through the full House largely unscathed Friday, despite moves by fiscal conservatives to cut more and numerous efforts by Democrats to restore pieces of the governor’s original proposal.

Republican budget crafters are pitching a budget that would shave spending of state tax money more than 2 percent compared to Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposal. Overall, it would reduce spending of state tax money more than 5 percent from what is obligated in the current two-year budget period.

Conservative Republicans were able to advance some smaller additional cuts on the House floor. And Democrats had one notable success in reversing proposed cuts, getting enough Republicans to agree to forgo proposed privatization of a veterans’ home.

One of the most contentious changes was a vote to cut nearly $5 million on family planning. Democrats, and some Republicans, argued the preventative services provide important cancer screening and basic physical exams that save other social assistance programs a lot of money. But Republicans pushing the cut, approved on 53-47 vote, argue the money goes to Planned Parenthood for contraceptives and abortions.

“Take care of your own self in these matters,” argued Rep. Bob Wagner, R-Harrison. “I never had health care until I came to this job, and I really don’t want it anyhow.”

Republican Don Roberts, an oral surgeon, argued that the Bush administration found the preventative services ultimately save the government money. He was one of 15 Republicans to oppose the cut.

“Even though it tends to be a lightening rod for some aspects of our concerns it does have a tremendously helpful public aspect to it,” Roberts said.

Overall, the GOP budget plan that covers a two-year period starting in July cuts plenty from Schweitzer’s original proposal. The House continues finalizing its version in votes on Saturday and Monday before sending it over to the Senate.

The chamber’s 32 Democrat were joined by two dozen Republicans to restore full funding for the Columbia Falls veteran’s home. The GOP holds a 68-32 majority in the House.

Republican budget crafters had proposed save more than $2 million by turning the home over to a private company, but opponents argued the issue needs much more study over the interim.

“Let those people that are going to be affected by this the most have a say before we privatize this over their objections,” said Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Helena.

Plenty of Republicans agreed, bucking their leadership’s plan.

“It’s pretty simple: if you don’t want to care for them as a taxpayer then don’t send them (to war),” said Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip.

Overall, the Republican budget plan rejects $120 million in federal money for social programs, a big point of contention with minority Democrats during debate on Friday. Democrats, led by Schweitzer, argue that Republicans are unnecessarily cutting important programs that help the poor and elderly just to meet ideological goals with disregard for an improving state revenue picture.

Democrats argued it is wrong for GOP lawmakers leading the chamber to cut programs approved by voters to fund tobaccos cessation programs and health insurance for needy children.

But Democrats, holding just 32 of the House’s 100 seats, failed in efforts to fully restore programs such as food stamps and prescription drug assistance for seniors in the Big Sky RX. In that particular vote, they were able to get the support of a dozen Republicans but still fell short.

The minority party was also unable to restore the Department of Commerce’s energy division, tasked with helping those types of companies set up shop in the state.

At the same time fiscal conservative were mostly stymied in attempts to cut more, especially large cuts like one to axe hundreds of state jobs. It and other big cuts failed. But a couple minor cuts succeeded — such as one gutting the Montana Main Street Program, which helps small towns revitalize business districts, to the tune of $250,000.

The Republicans, many of whom rode a wave of tea party support to big election wins in November, said the GOP should be cutting more.

Democrats, meanwhile, failed over and over in efforts to restore money that was cut from Schweitzer’s proposal in debate that dragged into the night. They argued Schweitzer proposed a better plan that provides more services and cuts taxes while meeting the constitutional obligation of a balanced budget.

“We can afford to do better and still meet our objectives,” said House Minority Leader Jon Sesso. “We have the resources to do better.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.