Montana GOP Budget Surpasses Governor’s in Spending

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Lawmakers were told Wednesday that Republican-led budget committees have so far surpassed the Democratic governor’s main budget in proposed spending — an increase at odds with GOP leadership promises to focus on limited spending.

Republicans, however, said the comparison is unfair — and noted that budget work is far from complete. They argued they were forced to add some inflationary increases into Medicaid spending last month, increases that weren’t included in Bullock’s proposal originally drafted late last year.

The House Appropriations Committee started work Wednesday on the state’s main budget bill. House Bill 2 has been massaged over the past two months by subcommittees that looked at each agency.

The committee will vote on the plan Monday, with the aim of getting it to the House floor the middle of this month.

Republican legislative leaders have said publicly their top priority is reining in spending. They are also separately proposing several tax cuts.

But staff analysis of budget actions so far showed that the Republican-led budget now exceeds Gov. Steve Bullock’s total spending request by about 1 percent, or $64 million, for all types of money sources. That includes state tax money, federal funding and licensing and other fees.

The appropriations committee will spend several days looking over the measure, potentially making changes, before sending it to the House floor.

The Republican chairman of the appropriations committee defended the developing budget plan. He said the proposal cuts spending of state tax money and argued that is the most important benchmark.

“The money we are really concerned about is general fund money,” said Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip.

Staff analysis distributed Wednesday said that particular spending measure decreased about $23 million, or about 1 percent in comparison to Bullock’s proposal. But the governor’s office disputed that figure by arguing that affiliated budget bills also push the Legislature’s spending of state tax money above the Bullock request.

Including all spending, House Bill 2 guides about $9 billion in state spending. Other budget measures working through the Legislature spend roughly $1 billion more.

Senate President Jeff Essmann said Wednesday that controlling spending remains the top priority for Republicans. He said his chamber will make changes after the budget clears the House later this month, and leaders in the Senate will be focused on controlling state spending of federal money, too.

“I am also concerned about spending of federal money, because Montana citizens pay those taxes as well,” Essmann said.

The Republican leader said his party is wrongly being dinged for inflationary increase in Medicaid, part of which went to providers like hospitals. He noted that budget area will really increase if Bullock gets his way and accepts millions more from the federal government to further expand the program as part of the federal health care bill.

He said there has been intense lobbying pressure, from dozens of lobbyists, to increase that spending area.

“It does show the power of the hospital lobby in the state Capitol,” Essmann said.

The Medicaid spending is one of several large areas that will have to be sorted out along with House Bill 2. They include a proposed pension fix, state employee pay raises, the governor’s bonding request to expand education facilities, local infrastructure spending and many other areas.

And the spending bill includes some ideological battles. Democrats on the committee criticized Republicans for cutting federal family planning money from the budget and made it clear they will seek to restore the money.

Republicans argue they don’t like the money going to Planned Parenthood, because it provides abortion. Democrats argue none of the money, in compliance with federal law, is used for abortions and is instead used primarily on preventative care.

Bullock budget director Dan Villa noted that budget work so far this session is far more congenial than in past years. But he told the lawmakers the governor wants the Legislature to restore some of its priorities that were cut from House Bill 2, including a plan to help veterans get into college.

Villa called the current version of House Bill 2 “a good start.”

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