Budget Battle Begins on House Floor

Contentious two-day debate on the state's biennial budget

By Molly Priddy

HELENA — The Montana House began a contentious two-day debate Wednesday on the state’s biennial budget, making last session’s bipartisan House budget deal seem a distant memory.

Democrats unsuccessfully brought 33 amendments to the floor by Wednesday afternoon in the areas of general government and health and human services. They were aiming to add back parts of the governor’s budget cut by Republican-led committees in the past six weeks.

Democratic Rep. Pat Noonan of Ramsay, vice chair on the House Appropriations Committee, said it was clear to him during the budget process that compromise wasn’t an option and he doesn’t believe Democrats will gain more than a couple victories in bringing amendments.

“Compromise doesn’t begin when you are sure that you are right,” he said. “The script is already written, much like most of this session.”

Committee chair Rep. Nancy Ballance of Hamilton said the committees dove deeply into the details of state agencies to develop the approximate $10 billion Republican budget proposal. She said the current budget is 2.3 percent lower than the governor’s latest budget request.

“Now we have a billion-dollar unprioritized wish list to go through over the next two days, which I believe is a waste of time for us all,” she said.

Democrats plan to offer more than 100 amendments Wednesday and Thursday that add up to nearly $1 billion. But Noonan said it’s not about the money.

“We’re not just here to spend money … it’s to point out, when we make the tough decisions to be fiscally responsible, who got left behind in those decisions,” he said.

Several of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s priorities including $37 million for a preschool program called Early Edge have been left out of the GOP budget. Moves to add that back in, as well as an attempt to include his proposal to expand Medicaid to 70,000 low-income Montanans, both failed along party lines.

The governor’s office criticized Republicans for bringing a budget the governor says is unacceptable.

Once the budget is approved by the House, it will go to the Senate for consideration.

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