HELENA — The Montana Legislature is on a six-day break after senators added about $50 million back into the main budget bill through negotiations with the governor Wednesday.
The added amount brings the current form of House Bill 2 within about $100 million of the proposal by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. He has said a leaner version of the budget passed by the House of Representatives last month was unacceptable.
Work on the overall state budget is far from complete, however. Here’s a look at some of the issues to be determined before the legislative session’s final day, May 1:
With the governor’s $391 million infrastructure proposal appearing to be dead, a new bill with bipartisan support and input from the governor overwhelmingly passed through the Senate this week. Sponsored by John Brenden, R-Scobey, Senate Bill 416 would spend a mix of cash, bonding and loans on projects based on the amount of revenue coming into the state. The amounts start at $50 million but more could be become available in the next two years if state revenues hit a higher mark. Eligible city and county projects would include wastewater treatment, drinking water systems and work on roads and bridges.
The only Medicaid Expansion bill left alive will have a hearing Tuesday in the same conservative Republican-led committee that killed the governor’s proposal in March. Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, introduced Senate Bill 405, known as the Montana Health and Economic Livelihood Act. It would expand Medicaid eligibility to more than 70,000 low-income Montanans but would require them to pay premiums and copayments and ask them to participate in a workplace assessment survey. The federal government would pay for the expansion in 2016 and gradually reduce its share to 90 percent by 2020.
CONFEDERATED SALISH AND KOOTENAI TRIBES WATER COMPACT
Lawmakers have yet to include the money necessary to implement a water negotiation between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state and federal governments. The proposed water compact, which is awaiting an April 11 hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, calls for $8 million of the $55 million agreement to be distributed next year. The initial appropriation would be used to begin measuring irrigation water used on the reservation to later guarantee farmers and ranchers the necessary levels of water.
STATE EMPLOYEE PAY PLAN
A bill to increase wages and health insurance contributions for state employees that was tabled in a House committee could still be part of budget negotiations. Under the proposal, state employees would receive 50 cents more an hour in October 2016 and again in October 2017. The measure would also increase the state’s contribution to health care costs. The bill’s passage is also tied to a tuition freeze for Montana college students.
EARLY EDGE PRESCHOOL PROGRAMS
Bullock’s $37 million plan to fund public preschool programs in the next two years was removed from his budget proposal by House Republicans, but supporters hope it could resurface before the session ends. Under the program dubbed Early Edge, grants would be available to public school districts — $30,000 for every 10 students — to create or expand preschool programs. If they choose to seek grant money, school districts could create their own preschool program, partner with an existing one or combine the two.
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