Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed several pieces of legislation Wednesday that lawmakers from both parties have been waiting on for more than a month, including two key bills – the $14 billion budget for the next two years and a bill to expand eligibility for childcare scholarships for low-income families.

House Bill 2, the budget bill, and House Bill 648, the Best Beginnings Scholarship expansion, were among six bills that for more than a month had been awaiting the signature of Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, so they could be sent to the governor’s desk for consideration ahead of the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

Legislative records show Ellsworth signed both bills this week, along with four others awaiting his signature, all of which were transmitted to Gianforte and signed by him on Wednesday.

In a statement, Gianforte called the budget one of the “most transformational” in state history.

“Montanans entrust us to be good stewards of their hard-earned dollars, and I’m proud our budget with the legislature, built for hardworking Montana families, fulfills that trust,” Gianforte said.

Gianforte did not line-item veto any portions of the bill as some Republican legislators had requested, keeping in a $300 million Medicaid reimbursement rate for health care providers that some lawmakers opposed but which Democrats and some Republicans had pushed for all session.

“This session, Montana Democrats finally convinced Republicans to invest in our community health care providers, and Montana’s seniors and working families will at last have a better shot at getting the care they need close to home,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, the leader of the push to increase the reimbursement rates, in a statement.

The Governor’s Office said the rate increases were “historic” and provide stability for health care providers and more services for Montanans.

The budget also includes almost $200 million to make repairs and expand the Montana State Prison, includes the governor’s priority tax cuts, contains funding for a teacher health insurance trust and higher starting pay, and invests in the housing bill compiled in the final weeks of the session, House Bill 819, sponsored by Rep. Paul Green, R-Hardin, which Gianforte also signed this week.

“This budget is built for hardworking Montana families,” the governor said.

Gianforte also signed HB 648, sponsored by Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, one of the pieces of legislation Democrats said this session was crucial for lawmakers to pass and the governor to sign into law.

Buckley secured 94 votes for the bill out of 150 lawmakers despite there being only 48 Democrats in the session. She has consistently touted the bill as a bipartisan win for businesses and families as parents struggle to afford health care and other bills and businesses try to hire more employees in Montana – including some who say they are working less in order to care for their children because of childcare costs.

The bill expands the scholarship program to an estimated 700 more working families living up to 185% of the federal poverty level – around $30,000 a year for a family of four – and caps copays for the program at 9% on a sliding scale – changes Buckley said throughout the session were key to limiting childcare costs that have in some place cost nearly as much as rent or a mortgage.

The bill received wide support from the childcare and business communities as it made its way through the legislature this spring, and Buckley said in recent weeks that those groups had been reaching out to her asking about the bill’s status.

“Ensuring Montana families have access to quality, affordable childcare means our economy can thrive – and so can our communities and kids,” Buckley said. “HB 648 marks the most substantive investment in childcare we’ve seen in Montana, and I am so proud we have finally taken action to address our state’s childcare crisis.”

Spokespersons for House and Senate Republicans did not respond to requests for comment on the signing of the bills.

Gianforte also signed four other bills this week that had been awaiting action by Ellsworth, including Hamilton Republican Rep. David Bedey’s House Bill 332, a $40 million public school health insurance trust; House Bill 587, a school funding and property tax reduction bill from Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad; and an appropriations bill for local government infrastructure projects sponsored by Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda.