Montana Senate Panel Wraps Up Budget

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The state’s main spending bill cleared a Senate committee late Tuesday with a few changes and is now headed to the full floor.

The $9 billion budget bill was endorsed by an 11-9 margin in Senate Finance and Claims Committee, with a mix of Democrats and Republicans opposing it.

The panel made a few additional tweaks.

It extended to more agencies an across-the-board budget cut requiring they leave 2 percent of their jobs vacant. Republicans expect that move to trim more than $20 million from the spending plan.

The committee also voted Tuesday to take advantage of an opportunity to expand the number of out-of-state medical school slots for Montana students, which carries a price tag of close to $400,000. Supporters said sending more Montana students to medical school could help relieve a doctor shortage in rural areas.

Overall, there was little changed in the spending plan that cleared the House last month with an unprecedented 100-0 vote. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, congratulated the senators.

“They went through the budget with a fine-tooth comb,” the Republican told them right before the final vote. “I brought you a diamond and you shined it up, and a fine job you did.”

The Republican majority has rejected Democratic attempts to restore federal family planning money in the main budget bill, an issue that will again receive a lot of attention when the budget hits the floor. GOP leaders expect they ultimately will lose that fight when the budget hits Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk.

The Senate committee on Tuesday also started looking at the proposed pay raise for state employees who have been laboring under a pay freeze, and it started looking at a separate $100 million bill seeking to boost jobs and improve education and other facilities by erecting and improving buildings. A decision could come later in the week.

The governor’s office argued that lawmakers should return to Bullock’s original plan of using low-interest bonds to pay for the projects.

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