During a stop in Kalispell two weeks ago, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said flatly that he could not sign the state’s primary budget bill as written.
Five days later on March 19, the House of Representatives passed the bill unanimously as written, without amendments, in a vote that surprised political observers who were preparing for a long, potentially rancorous debate.
Bullock’s March 14 comments in an interview with the Beacon give a great deal of intrigue to the forthcoming Senate debate over the budget, especially considering the governor hasn’t appeared to soften his stance after the House vote.
In a recent Associated Press story, Bullock said that despite “common agreement” in many areas he still has concerns over House Bill 2, a $9 billion measure that sets funding for most state agencies over the next two years.
Simply put: without certain specific changes, the proposal won’t likely make it past the governor. That puts the onus squarely on Senate Democrats to achieve the remaining budget priorities of their party and its top official – the governor – in a Republican-controlled chamber, where demands must be finely balanced with compromise.
“There are specific areas in the budget that we will work hard to correct, change, refine, update,” Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, a Democrat from Butte, said in an interview last week. “We’ll try to find the money for the priorities we want to bring to the table. We’ll try to do our best.”
To be sure, both Republicans and Democrats have conceded that the bill still needs to be tweaked in the Senate, even if they believe – like Bullock indicated – that there is more agreement than disagreement. The unanimous House vote demonstrated that the two parties agree on the core of the proposal and hope the Senate can iron out any wrinkles of disagreement.
A primary point of contention for Democrats is $4.6 million in federal funds for family-planning clinics across Montana. Bullock and legislative Democrats have said restoring that money is a prerequisite to final budget approval, but Republicans on a House committee removed the funds, arguing against directing any public dollars to organizations that provide abortions.
But supporters of restoring the funds point out that federal law prohibits the money from being spent on abortions, even if clinics that perform abortions receive the funding.
The funds are distributed to 25 clinics – including Planned Parenthood – serving more than 25,000 people a year in Montana, mostly low-income women. The dollars account for an average of 30 percent of the clinics’ budgets, according to Lee Newspapers, and help pay for breast exams, cancer screenings and contraception.
Sesso said restoring the family-planning money will be a top priority for Senate Democrats.
“The women’s health issue has been and always will be a priority of Democrats and, I think, all reasonable legislators, because if you’re paying attention you know that it’s an investment in lower-cost care for the women,” he said.
“The fact is, it’s not inextricably tied to the emotional thing of abortion that (critics) think it is. It’s about preventative care; it’s about mammograms.”
Sesso is encouraged by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans who have come together on a couple of major issues, including education funding and recently a campaign finance proposal supported by Bullock. He is waiting to see if that bipartisan coalition can also stake out common ground on budget issues.
“I hope you continue to see a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats working to get the people’s business done,” he said.
That includes family planning.
“We don’t have to convince everybody, just enough,” Sesso said of restoring the funds.
In addition to family planning, Bullock has called for the budget to include more money for the public defender system and a program that keeps troubled kids in school. Sesso added that there are companion funding and education bills that will also play an important role in shaping the session’s final budget picture.
And he says additional incentive to compromise can be found on the state Capitol’s second floor, where the governor awaits with either his veto or signing pen.
“The hammer is still there – we’re staring a veto in the face if we can’t get it done,” he said.
Bullock would like to see the Legislature send him a final version that includes his stated priorities. He’d rather use the signing pen.
“I’m hopeful cooler heads will prevail,” he said.
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