HELENA – The Republican-led House on Monday backed a Montana budget plan that decreases spending primarily by rolling back social services, but also made same last-minute cuts to proposed education spending.
Overall, Republicans said their two-year budget plan reduces spending of state tax money about 5 percent to $3.6 billion. It also rejects about $120 million in federal money for programs like health care assistance for children and food stamps.
Republicans holding a supermajority in the House also made some last-minute reductions to the education spending plan before endorsing the entire package Monday with a 65-34 vote. Even though ardent fiscal conservatives grumbled the plan does not cut enough, most voted in favor of it.
“Did we get as far as we need to go? No. But I think we set a tone that needed to be set,” said veteran Republican Rep. Walt McNutt of Sydney. “It’s a new era. It’s time we change the way we do business.”
Republicans running the chamber recognized that the conservative wave that gave them a supermajority may have been expecting bigger cuts. But they argued they have taken the first substantial steps toward cutting entitlement programs despised by many in their base.
“I have to say that Republicans have majorities for a reason, and that is because the people of Montana said we have to tighten our belt,” said House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray of Billings. “We have a mandate to reduce spending.”
Democrats opposed the plan, saying it cuts too much and irresponsibly turns away federal money that helps the needy to meet ideological values of the Republicans. They pointed at cuts to programs that help providing heating assistance to the poor, locally grown food to struggling single moms and prescription drug assistance for the elderly as cuts the GOP majority made just to make a point.
It became clear Monday that the ultimate education plan is still up in the air.
During debate, the House axed more than $20 million from the budget plan linked to pending action in the Senate. House Republicans argued they would need to see that plan in its entirety before making a final judgment on it.
A Senate panel at the same time was taking its first look at the complicated K-12 education mechanism that redistributed some oil and gas money to the detriment of eastern Montana oil patch districts and makes many other changes. If ultimately successful, it would increase education funding.
House Republicans, after first agreeing in committee earlier in the month to provide funding for the plan in main House Bill 2 budget, took a step back from the plan and removed the contingency language Monday on the House floor. They said the money could be put back in later if they accept the funding scheme being written by their GOP colleagues in the Senate.
Democrats argued cuts to education will simply shift spending pressure to local districts, which are more likely to raise property taxes.
“Local property taxes are going to go up. This bill is the biggest bunch of smoke-and-mirrors tax shift I have ever seen perpetrated on the people of Montana,” said Rep. Bill McChesney, D-Miles City. “What I see in this budget is an absolute travesty and disservice.”
Republican Wayne Stahl was among just a couple Republicans to oppose the spending plan because it didn’t cut enough. He said Republicans will see their big majority decline when voters see they didn’t deliver big cuts.
“We are not doing anything we promised we would,” Stahl said.
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