Republicans Hold the Line on Health Spending Rollbacks

The committee was expected to finish its work on major components of the state budget on Friday

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN, Associated Press

HELENA — Montana House Democrats made impassioned pleas Friday to restore nearly $100 million in health care spending cut from Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposed budget.

But Republicans weren’t budging much, holding firm in the House Appropriations Committee against big-ticket proposals brought forward by Democrats.

The committee was expected to finish its work on major components of the state budget on Friday, before preparing it for House chamber. There, it is expected to come under scrutiny as Democrats push back against reductions that they say undermine safety net programs for seniors and educational opportunities for college students.

While opposed to large spending proposals by Democrats, the Republican-controlled Appropriations Committee agreed to modest changes to the health care budget.

Throughout week, Democrats and the governor’s office took pains to put a face and human voices behind the cold numbers. That wasn’t lost on Republicans, who asserted they knew there would be real-world consequences to the state budget.

Republican Rep. Jon Knokey of Bozeman offered to put back $220,000 in funding for the disabled, he said, after hearing testimony from two disabled people who spoke before the committee on Tuesday and after a recent visit to a nursing home in his hometown.

“At the nursing home, a couple of individuals — a patient and a nurse — actually swore at me because of these proposed cuts,” Knokey said.

“We spend a lot of time looking at a budget that is 6 inches thick,” Knokey said, referring to the binder of papers and numbers his committee is debating. “But the budget tells a story that politics can’t tell.”

But politics prevailed.

Another GOP-sponsored amendment took a dig at the governor’s office for reportedly using $10 million in Medicaid overpayments as a loan to the highway fund. As a condition for restoring a $26 million cut to the $571 million requested by the governor for long-term senior care, the committee agreed to allocate the money if the governor returned the loan.

While that vote was unanimous, Democrats and Republicans were drawn into a testy exchange about whether the loan was improper.

Republicans defeated every one of the Democrats’ proposed changes to the spending bill. One proposal by Rep. Marilyn Ryan of Missoula would have allocated $61 million to help boost the pay of direct care givers.

The committee did not take any new testimony during Friday’s budget hearing.

Sheila Hogan, the governor’s director of public health and human services, sat in the audience as the committee debated funding for her department.

Afterward, she said she appreciated the work of the committee but expressed concern about losing millions of dollars in federal funds.

“We cannot access the federal money they’ve allocated without the state money to trigger it,” she said.

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