House floor, 2021 session Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

HELENA — The state’s two-year budget bill passed its initial vote in the Montana House along party lines Monday, advancing with support from a unified Republican majority and opposition from Democrats frustrated by health and human services spending cuts.

House Bill 2, which totals approximately $12.6 billion, still faces a final vote in the House before being sent to the Senate for another round of review.

“This is a very solid and well-thought-out bill for this point in time,” said House Appropriations Committee Chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad. “It needs to continue on its journey.”

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the shape we needed it to be able to support it today,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena.

As it stands, the legislative budget comes in slightly thinner than the spending proposal released by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte in January. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services specifically is facing a budget that’s approximately $150 million below the governor’s initial request — essentially the same funding level it received in the last two-year cycle without adjustment for inflation or the state’s growing population.

During the chamber’s day-long debate, Democrats brought a series of amendments looking to pull the DPHHS budget closer to the governor’s proposal, all of which were rebuffed by Republicans on nearly party-line votes. If successful, the amendments would have restored funding for school-based mental health counselors, a federally funded refugee resettlement initiative, and a suicide prevention effort, among other social service programs. Democratic aides said their amendments totaled about $23 million in General Fund spending.

Rep. Matt Regier of Kalispell, the Republican lead on the health section of the budget, said lawmakers are working on finding an alternative funding source for the school counseling program, which previously saw a greater share of its cost covered by federal dollars.

Republicans did add some additional spending of their own, including approximately $150,000 a year to fund a natural resources attorney in the state Department of Justice. That position, said Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, would help the state pursue litigation with the Biden administration over the Keystone XL pipeline and other natural resource issues.

Republicans also passed a budget amendment to give the state university system $1 million to respond to the constitutional carry bill Gianforte signed into law in February, which restricts higher education officials’ ability to limit firearms on campuses.

That money could be spent on offering firearms training on campuses, adding gun safes to campus dorms and installing metal detectors for athletic events where guns can still be barred. However, the budget amendment included language that would have the university system forfeit the allocation if the state Board of Regents chooses to challenge the law in court.

Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, applauded the budget bill’s passage Monday.

“I am proud of the Montana House’s work to create a conservative state budget,” he said in a statement. “House Bill 2 provides the state with a responsible budget that adequately funds state services and gives Gov. Gianforte the tools he needs to continue making state government more efficient.

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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.