(KPAX) HELENA — On Monday, the Montana House met all day to consider just a single bill – but it was a massive one. They held a full day of debate on House Bill 2, the main state budget bill.
Lawmakers then endorsed the bill 67-33 in a party-line vote, with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.
HB 2 lays out about $12.6 billion in state spending over the next two years, from the general fund, state special revenue and federal money. The members of the House Appropriations Committee have been crafting the bill for weeks.
“House Bill 2 represents literally hundreds of hours of work by the Appropriations Committee and a very, very dedicated staff,” said Republican Rep. Llew Jones of Conrad, who chairs the committee.
Before any amendments, Jones said the budget was about $400 million lower than Gov. Greg Gianforte’s original proposal.
“I’m very proud of the work this committee did in searching for efficiencies and gains,” he said.
Democrats from the Appropriations Committee said they still had issues with the version of HB 2 that came to the floor, but that they felt the budget process had been positive.
“While this budget has a little bit of ways to go, it’s a pretty good start,” said Democratic Rep. Mary Caferro of Helena, vice-chair of the committee.
HB 2, being the biggest and most important bill of the session, is treated differently than any other bill. It is broken into five sections: general government. education, natural resources and transportation, corrections and public safety, and public health and human services.
On Monday, the chairs of the appropriations subcommittees that worked on each section of the budget presented overviews of the proposed spending. Lawmakers then proposed and voted on amendments to those sections. Once they finished each section, it was “closed” – meaning no further changes could be made on the floor.
Most of the discussion was on Section B, public health and human services – by far the largest section of the budget, with about $6 million. On Monday afternoon, Democrats introduced a series of nine amendments attempting to restore or increase funding in Section B.
“There’s a few problems that we could do better, and I hope we will,” said Caferro. “We left many services and programs unfunded for a number of different reasons. I’m hopeful that we’ll work those out going forward.”
The proposals included providing additional $1 million for suicide prevention, returning $10 million to allow people on Medicaid expansion to maintain coverage for a full year and restoring $1.2 million for the STARS to Quality program to support and improve early childhood programs.
Republicans said they had taken a deep look at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ budget this session. They said the changes they had made were aimed at balancing the services DPHHS provides with making the agency run more efficiently.
“We came into this with really an idea of service, trying to increase the service out to the people of Montana as we did reducing bureaucracy,” said Rep. Matt Regier, a Republican from Kalispell.
All of the Democratic amendments to Section B failed on party-line or near-party-line votes.
The majority Republicans approved one large “global” amendment Monday, which would require a number of state agencies to make additional cuts in personnel spending. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Bill Mercer, a Republican from Billings, would increase “vacancy savings” – a reduction in the budget to account for authorized staff positions that aren’t filled – from 4% to 5%. All 67 Republicans supported the change, while all Democrats voted against it.
Mercer said the amendment reduced general fund spending by about $4.5 million over two years. It exempted DPHHS, based on the cuts that had already been made to that department, as well as the Office of Public Instruction, Office of the State Public Defender and several smaller agencies.
One other notable change Monday was that lawmakers removed several general fund appropriations for specific programs. Their intention is to make up that funding using federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act, the COVID stimulus bill.
Republican lawmakers also added more than $1 million to help the Montana University System implement House Bill 102 – the bill passed earlier this session to expand where guns can be carried, particularly on college campuses. However, the money will be withdrawn if the MUS challenges the bill in court.
The House also approved another $300,000 for the Montana Attorney General’s Office to add an attorney to focus on natural resource issues, like Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s cancellation of permits for the Keystone XL pipeline.
At the end of the day, House minority leader Kim Abbott, a Democrat from Helena, said she couldn’t support the bill at this time, in light of the choices the majority had made.
“We had an opportunity today to invest our resources in investing jobs and economic opportunity for people all across the state, and I think we missed a couple of those opportunities,” she said.
But Jones said he believes HB 2 is in good shape – though he said it’s likely to undergo many more changes before the end of the session.
“This is a very solid and well thought-out bill for this point in time,” he said. “It needs to continue on its journey.”
HB 2 will have to pass a final vote in the House in the coming days before it is transmitted to the Senate.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include the final vote, information on the Section B budget and additional quotes.