Analysis Shows Senate Panel Added $57M to Montana Budget

Estimate shows the Senate committee added $23 million to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services' budget

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — A Senate committee added $57 million to the 2018-2019 Montana budget proposal previously approved by the House, prompting Gov. Steve Bullock’s office to urge lawmakers to pay for the additions with tax hikes he recommended at the beginning of the legislative session.

A preliminary estimate by the Legislative Fiscal Division shows the Senate Finance and Claims Committee’s amendments on Tuesday increased the budget bill to $10.3 billion in state and federal funds. The estimate shows the Senate committee added $23 million to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services’ budget, including more than $10 million for nursing homes.

More money was added to the budgets of nearly all state agencies, though the committee reduced total education spending by $12 million to offset some of the additions. The reductions came mainly from the temporary elimination of school district block grant funding.

The Republican-led Legislature until now has resisted adding a significant amount of money to a budget that GOP lawmakers are seeking to balance by making spending cuts across government agencies. They are trying to plug a budget shortfall and leave a $200 million cash reserve with cuts alone, while Bullock’s budget recommendation included a combination of cuts and tax increases.

Bullock wants to leave a $300 million cushion for unexpected expenses and dips in revenue before the Legislature meets again in 2019.

Dan Villa, the governor’s budget director, warned that the additions the Senate panel made will come at the expense of that cash reserve and he asked the Senate to reconsider Bullock’s tax proposals. They include increasing taxes on the wealthy, alcohol and tobacco, and adding new taxes to medical marijuana and vaping products.

“Governor Bullock is pleased the Legislature has restored many of their previous unnecessary and irresponsible cuts,” Villa said in a statement. “Unfortunately they can’t pay for them without raiding the state’s rainy day fund.”

A recently released revenue estimate forecast the state will take in $106 million more than expected over the next two years. But Villa warned against assuming the growth rate will be that high, saying it risks having to call a special legislative session to fix the budget if it falls short.

The budget bill is expected to go to the Senate floor early next week.

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