Long Day at Montana Senate to Approve GOP Budget

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The state Senate slogged through nearly 14 hours of debate Monday before endorsing a Republican budget plan, but not before agreeing to put some money back in for electronic medical records as sought by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Most other proposals to restore the Democratic governor’s plan were rebuffed by the GOP majority, which endorsed the plan just shy of midnight in a 27-23 vote.

“I am convinced that it has to be this way because we have to live within our means,” said Senate President Jim Peterson to close debate. “We have to look forward to the future and we can’t spend beyond our means.”

But Republicans running the Senate did agree that the state should indeed take about $35 million in federal money to help hospitals and local clinics transition to electronic medical records. House Republicans had spurned the money in their version of the budget, arguing it could result in invasions of privacy, since the electronic records could be seen by so many providers.

Supporters said the change will speed up transfers of patients and reduce the chance of making mistakes. A Republican proposing reinstatement of the money argued it is especially critical to rural areas that often transfer patients to hospitals in larger towns and cities.

Small changes were made on the floor to spend a little more money or to shift from one area to another, such as in a successful Republicans amendment to allow a wage increase for the lower-paid direct-care providers of Medicaid services to the tune of $15 million. Another took anticipated savings to state agencies from a planned overhaul of workers’ compensation insurance to better fund community colleges.

Democratic successes were usually small when they came at all, such as a proposal from Mitch Tropila, of Great Falls, to add $34,000 back into budget for the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind.

“Please give them this small, little amount of money,” implored Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, of Missoula. “This is the least you can do for those children.”

Afterward, Republicans halted the proceedings to gently chastise members for straying from the proposal by adding more money into the education budget. GOP leaders gathered votes to cut about $400,000 from the amount the state pays to private building owners for renting office space in Helena, to offset money being put back in on often sentimental votes.

The budget saga is far from finished, and even Republicans expect more changes in negotiations with House leaders. Then awaits Schweitzer, who has been nothing but critical of the work done so far by the Legislature.

And the education funding component of the House Republican spending plan is still up in the air. What once was the leading proposal to revamp the school funding formulas while taking some oil-and-gas money from some eastern Montana districts has been scuttled by Republican leaders.

Peterson said the school funding mechanism will likely come from the House and be modified in negotiations. He said the amount of school money in the main budget bill clearing the Senate, known as House Bill 2, can be trued up later in a conference committee with the House.

As the day wore on, and the total added back into the budget reached into the tens of millions of dollars when including federal money, fiscal conservatives began to lash back.

Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, while successfully proposing an amendment to take $10,000 out of the travel budget of the office of public instruction, argued the overall cuts to state agencies are minuscule compared to what business owners have dealt with in the recession.

Senate Republicans were largely sticking with House plans to spurn federal money in many other areas such as food stamps, help for the disabled, family planning and other areas. The Senate actions reduced the total federal money Republicans are rejecting in the budget for social services to less than $100 million.

“This is crazy, not to accept federal funds,” said Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda. “We are not saving anything on the federal budget. It will go to another state. But we are cutting people in our state. That is idiotic.”

Republicans, in some cases, have argued that the federal money often comes with strings attached and that they don’t want to create expectations for the state. In other cases, like the spurned money for family planning, Republicans say tax money should not be going to groups like Planned Parenthood.

Overall, the Republican spending plan cuts spending of state tax money about 6 percent. It cuts more than $100 million from the governor’s proposed spending of the state tax money — known as general fund money — that lawmakers are usually most concerned with. The governor has made clear his displeasure with the proposal, and even hinted that he may veto it.

One failed Democratic effort would have fully restored the voter-approved Healthy Montana Kids program — an expanded Medicaid program that helps low-to-moderate income families get health insurance for their children.

“Do you want children to have health care, or do you not?” asked Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena. “This is a program for families who cannot afford to provide their children health care.”

That amendment, and many others like it, failed mostly along party lines.

“We just can’t keep spending more money,” said Sen. Dave Lewis, a Helena Republican who has been a leading budget drafter for the GOP.