Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) - The Montana House spent the whole day Wednesday debating just one bill — but it’s by far the biggest of the legislative session.

On a 68-32 party-line vote, the House endorsed House Bill 2, the main state budget bill, which sets out $14.3 billion in spending over the next two years.

All Republicans voted in favor of the bill, with all Democrats in opposition.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, chairs the House Appropriations Committee, which put together the current version of HB 2.

He said their goal was to craft “a compromise that recognizes both the taxpayer and the critical needs across our state.”

He said the bill needs more work, but is a good start as it moves forward.

“This is a very good budget for this time, relative to the inflation and the work that's out there,” he said. “It offers forth a very positive product.”

Jones said the full bill — including money from all sources — includes about a 12% increase for the coming biennium.

It appropriates about $4.2 billion in state general fund money.

Jones estimated that would be an increase of about 8.6%, not including one large source of revenue that was shifted from the general fund to a special fund.

HB 2 is handled differently than any other bill because of its sheer size.

It’s divided into five sections: education and culture, justice, natural resources and transportation, health and human services, and general government.

The chairs of the budget subcommittees that focused on each section went through the bill agency by agency, breaking down the biggest changes.

During Wednesday’s debate, the Republican supermajority held firm behind the work that the committee did, with no GOP members proposing any changes.

Democrats, in the minority, have consistently argued the GOP budget proposals have “failed to meet the scale of the crisis” facing Montana. They offered 14 amendments throughout the day.

“We hope that you will join us in investing in the problems that still are left on the table: child care, housing and community services,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena.

But each of those amendments fell short — nearly all of them on party-line votes.

One unsuccessful proposal attempted to reverse a decision made in Appropriations, to use $7.9 million over the next two years to move up to 120 state inmates to a private prison facility in Arizona — operated by CoreCivic, the company that runs the Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby.

Supporters of that plan said it’s the only short-term way to address overcrowding that’s led to about 280 people serving state prison sentences in local detention facilities — limiting space for local law enforcement to hold newly arrested suspects.

Opponents said it was a mistake to separate inmates from their families and support systems, and that it would make it harder for state leaders to provide oversight.

“Even though this is one-time-only, this option really feels like a shortcut,” said Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula. “It feels like we are taking an easy way out instead of doing the hard work to dig in and find solutions that are going to last.”

“Everyone who is uncomfortable with this proposal, I welcome your support for the increased capacity of secured beds in Montana,” said Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings. “I agree with you; it would be better if we had another prison in Montana. So if we can jointly agree on that, that's fine. But that is not something that we're going to be able to do in this budget. What we need to do now is figure out a way to deal with this math problem, and this is the only alternative that I'm aware of.”

This amendment failed 33-67. It was the only one all day to draw any Republican support, with Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, joining Democrats.

Other Democratic amendments sought to add funding for additional staff attorneys at the state Office of the Public Defender, extend continuous eligibility for people on Medicaid expansion and provide additional funding for low- to moderate-income housing loans and rental assistance.

HB 2 is set for a final vote in the House on Thursday, but that’s far from the end of the budget process.

The measure still has to go through the Senate. If senators make any changes, it could potentially be sent to a conference committee to iron out the differences, before it goes to Gov. Greg Gianforte for a signature.