Montana Senate Deals on Family Planning Money, Job Cuts

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Montana lawmakers brokering budget deals Saturday restored federal family planning money sought by Democrats, and gave Republicans a permanent cut of 500 vacant state jobs.

The Republican-controlled chamber endorsed the state’s main $9 billion budget bill – a combination of state and federal money – in a 30-20 vote after an all-day session. It covers services big and small: schools, driver’s licensing, Medicaid, law enforcement and much more.

The governor released a short statement Saturday night saying he would have to veto the budget without some changes.

“They failed to fund the necessary services that keep criminals behind bars, fund the nurses and doctors needed to help Montanans with disabilities or are in a crisis, or ensure that we invest in job creation,” Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said.

Fiscal conservatives voiced displeasure, including the majority leader, saying the budget spends too much. Other Republicans joined Democrats in calling it a good compromise.

Lawmakers huddled for two hours to start Saturday trying to reach a deal on two contentious issues. It produced a compromise that restores about $5 million of federal family planning for health clinics. The item has been a priority for Democrats — but was previously cut by Republicans opposed to Planned Parenthood.

Republicans tried, but failed, to say that none of the federal money could go to an abortion provider. It would strip the money from one of the largest recipients, Planned Parenthood, or force them to divide into two separate organizations.

State Sen. Jason Priest of Red Lodge said Republicans don’t like the political advocacy Planned Parenthood engages in. Democrats said the advocacy is only there because of attacks against the health care services.

“When the political attacks stop, so will the political activities,” said State Sen. Christine Kauffman. “When the political attacks stop in this body, they won’t need to be out there in the halls defending women’s health.”

Democrats, and some Republicans looking for broader compromise, blocked the amendment. The chamber then voted 28-22 to restore the money, with new language that emphasizes federal law banning the use of the money on abortions must be followed.

Supporters said the money is crucial to ensuring that low-income women have access to cancer screenings and other health care — and contraception that can prevent pregnancies that can be costly for Medicaid.

In exchange, some Democrats backed a Republican move to permanently cut 500 state jobs that are vacant. GOP backers said the move will limit the growth in government, although some Republicans were skeptical it will result in any real savings.

State Sen. Llew Jones of Conrad said that the permanent reduction makes sure that about 4 percent of the state’s 12,250 positions will not be filled in the future. He said it could save $20 miller per year. It was approved in a 34-16 vote.

“It does stop the growth,” Jones said. “This is how you limit the growth. You do it by removing the empty slots.”

Most other GOP amendments to cut funding in others like public television were defeated. One of the larger proposed cuts would have required a 2 percent across-the-board cut in agencies.

Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich blasted the budget as too big. And he said plans still in the works to give a pay raise to state employees, fix the pension system and build new education buildings will stress the budget even more. He called for more work to trim spending.

“The bad news is that we spent a whole lot of money,” said Wittich, a Bozeman lawyer. “I hope we can see some additional cuts and fiscal responsibility. And I am still hoping to get some tax relief.”

Democrats said that tax relief remains on the table with the other priorities.

“Save some money, invest some money, give some back. That is what we have been trying to do,” said Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte.

The chamber will take a final vote, with no debate, on the main budget bill Tuesday before it is sent to a conference committee to hash out differences between the House and Senate versions. The budget will then be sent to Bullock, who has line-item veto authority.

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