The Montana House’s Republican supermajority voted in near-lockstep Wednesday to rebuff Democratic efforts to amend Montana’s primary two-year budget bill, clearing the way for the bill to advance to the state Senate after a final vote in the coming days.
The $14.3 billion budget bill, House Bill 2, authorizes most state spending for the two-year fiscal period starting July 1. It passed a preliminary House vote Wednesday on party lines, 68-32, following a day-long debate.
Republicans argued the budget may not be perfect but amounts to a reasonable compromise between competing priorities.
“It represents a good balance between the taxpayers’ pocketbook and the needs of critical services,” said House Appropriations Chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad.
Minority Democrats argued the budget in its current form doesn’t do enough to put money into affordable housing, childcare access, and reimbursement rates for health care providers who accept Medicaid, the state’s largest public insurance program.
“It just doesn’t address the problems we’re facing. It does not meet the scale of the crisis across the state,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, shortly before the vote.
Democrats proposed 14 amendments during the debate, all of which were voted down by Republicans. With one exception — a vote by Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, for stripping funding that would let the Montana Department of Corrections move some prisoners from its crowded facilities to a private prison in Arizona — Republicans voted along party lines, preserving the budget bill as it passed out of the House Appropriations Committee March 15.
The state budget is based on an executive proposal put forward by Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, in November. Lawmakers who serve on the House and Senate appropriations committees have spent much of the winter digging into that proposal and amending it to produce the budget bill in its current form.
As it moves forward, the bill will almost certainly be amended by the Senate and will likely face a final round of negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers before heading to Gianforte’s desk.
Of the $14.3 billion in spending authorized by the budget bill, $7.1 billion, or half, will come from federal funds passed through state coffers, most of that for health programs and highway construction. Another $4.2 billion is spending from the state General Fund, the flexible funding bucket at the center of most budget debates. Major General Fund spending categories include $1.6 billion for public education, $1.4 billion for state health and human services programs and $798 million for courts, prisons and state law enforcement.
With the state flush with an estimated $2.5 billion budget surplus — and state agencies contending with the effects of 14% inflation over the past two years — the budget bill includes sizable increases in some areas. Among other items, lawmakers have allocated $6.1 million to increase pay for correctional officers and enough money to boost Medicaid provider rates by nearly $295 million.
The total spending authorized by the current version of the budget bill is about 14% higher than the two-year budget passed by the 2021 Legislature, on par with inflation. It is also equivalent to roughly $13,000 for each Montana resident.
Many of the big-ticket spending proposals under consideration by this year’s Legislature are included in other budget bills. For example, Gianforte signed a billion-dollar tax cut, rebate and spending package into law March 13. Other proposals in the legislative pipeline could spend hundreds of millions on, for example, infrastructure, housing, pension fund stability or further tax rebates.
As is typical, most of the debates on the House floor Wednesday focused not on sweeping changes to agency funding but instead comparatively small pieces of the budget with outsized practical or political significance.
Democrats, for example, brought an amendment in an effort to strip $2 million of General Fund money that Republicans had added to the Montana Department of Justice budget for litigation funding. The justice department, led by Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen, typically defends state agencies in litigation such as lawsuits brought by plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of newly adopted laws.
The state has seen an uptick in such challenges, many of them brought by left-leaning attorneys and plaintiff groups, since Gianforte’s election in 2020 deprived Democrats of the governor’s veto pen. A bill to patch up overspent line items from the prior 2022-23 budget cycle, House Bill 3, was also signed into law March 15 with a $2.8 million appropriation for DOJ litigation costs.
Other Democratic amendment efforts Wednesday included the following:
- An effort to add $170 million to the state’s emergency rental assistance program.
- An effort to add $30 million to a program that subsidizes rent-restricted affordable housing construction by offering low-interest loans.
- An effort to add $13.5 million in state spending to the health budget in order to reimplement the state’s 12-month continuous coverage policy for its expanded Medicaid program, which Republicans eliminated last session.
- An effort to strip $7.8 million added to the corrections department budget to let it contract for the use of 120 beds at an Arizona prison owned by CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America.
- An effort to add $3.4 million for 15 additional staff at the Office of the State Public Defender, which provides representation in criminal cases to defendants who can’t afford their own attorneys. Gianforte’s budget proposal had called for 20 additional attorneys, investigators and administrative assistants. The current budget bill would add five attorney positions.
- An effort to add $600,000 to make free school lunches and breakfasts available to more K-12 students.
- An effort to restore a $150,000 cut made to funding for tribal colleges to help prospective students prepare for and take the HiSET exam, a high-school equivalency credential similar to the GED.
Apart from the CoreCivic vote, which picked up a single Republican vote from Carlson, all those amendments were voted down on party lines.
Alex Sakariassen and Mara Silvers contributed reporting.
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