Legislature

Montana House Advances Budget Amid Cuts to Social Services

House voted Monday against increasing funding for a suicide prevention program

By Iris Samuels, Associated Press/Report for America

HELENA — The Montana House voted Monday against increasing funding for a suicide prevention program, even after a Democratic lawmaker testified that her 24-year-old grandson died by suicide last week.

“You cannot put a dollar amount on a life,” said Democratic Rep. Rynalea Whiteman Pena from Lame Deer, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, amid tears, after she shared that her grandson had killed himself on Friday.

Lawmakers observed a moment of silence during a hearing on the state’s budget, before Republican legislators, who hold a majority in the House, overwhelmingly voted against an amendment to add $1 million to the state budget over a two-year period for the state’s suicide prevention program.

The suicide rate in Montana ranks as the third highest in the U.S., second only to Wyoming and Alaska, according to the most recent figures collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rep. Kathy Kelker, the Democrat who brought the amendment, said the funding would go toward research-based methods that are proven to reduce suicide rates. But Rep. Matt Regier, the Republican who led the crafting of the state health department’s budget, said that there is no effective way to track the efficacy of the myriad suicide prevention methods already utilized in the state.

The vote came as lawmakers debated the state’s budget for the two-year period beginning June 2021. Republican lawmakers voted down several amendments by Democrats seeking to restore funding for social services that were cut under GOP leadership, including for school meals, school-based mental health counseling, child care programs, and the state’s expanded Medicaid program.

Democrats sought amendments that would have restored more than $30 million in state funding to the $12.6 billion two-year budget.

The budget advanced by the Legislature cut more than $100 million from the proposal made by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte in January. That proposal had already decreased general fund spending by $100 million over the biennium compared to the budget proposed by former Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock last year.

The budget would leave Montana with a funding balance and reserve funds totaling around $450 million, including full emergency coffers. Democrats say more of that money should be put to use to invest in the state’s economy as it emerges from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The House advanced the budget in a 67-33 vote along party lines, with Republican House leadership calling the legislation fiscally responsible. It heads next to the Republican-led Senate.

Democrats said the decision to cut funding for social services was unnecessary and would slow down job growth. “It feels unfortunate that we weren’t able to support the budget today,” said Democratic minority leader Rep. Kim Abbott.

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