(Illustration by Getty Images)
The state House of Representatives on Monday gave preliminary approval to the state’s main budget bill, House Bill 2, following hours of debate and a series of ultimately failed amendments from Democrats to restore cuts to healthcare services that lawmakers originally made in subcommittees earlier in the session.
The $12.6 billion spending plan, the product of a months-long process between top legislative appropriators and the Governor’s Office, passed its penultimate House vote on party lines, the norm in recent sessions. The bill comes in with a roughly $400 million lower price tag than the budget framework brought by the office of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, a result of cuts to government positions and programs especially in the Department of Public Health and Human Services, Montana’s largest agency.
“Money is always scarce,” said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the House Appropriations Committee chair and one of the principal architects of the budget. “Our funding decisions pick the winners and losers and the services we can provide. This is difficult.”
But whether the state’s resources are as limited as Jones said is not a settled matter. Jones and others this session have readily admitted the state’s finances post-COVID-19 are far better than they could be, and with the addition of $3 billion from the feds from the most recent congressional stimulus package, Democrats have argued that now is the time to shore up or expand the state’s programs to help those in need, not to look for “efficiencies,” to borrow some budget jargon.
“We have more money in this state than we’ve had maybe in history,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, who has led her caucus on healthcares spending issues.
These conflicting world views have been on display since the beginning of the budget process, when a series of subcommittees audited agency spending requests and recommended the changes that moved one step closer to becoming law on Monday.
One of those early moves was setting a starting point for negotiations on the Health and Human Services budget that was $1 billion lower than the governor’s budget request, ostensibly with the plan to restore funding to individual programs in the cut as the process went on. That money was eventually restored, but not without millions of dollars of cuts elsewhere in the department.
Those cuts remained in the bill after voting Monday, despite the efforts of Democrats to restore around $23 million to the general fund, primarily for services within DPHHS. A series of amendments from Democrats all failed on party lines, but lawmakers approved amendments from the GOP, which has a 67-33 majority in the House.
Among the most substantial of the failed amendments was a proposal to restore year-round Medicaid continuous eligibility, an option that states can use under expanded Medicaid to keep people on the rolls without having to re-check their eligibility every year. Proponents say this helps avoid “churn,” or disruptions to coverage, and keeps low-income Montanans from having to jump through hoops and wait in line at the Office of Public Assistance in order to keep their healthcare.
Ending the practice, which is only law in Montana and New York, will reduce DPHHS spending by around $10.7 million over the next biennium.
“It costs us $5.3 million a year to keep people on Medicaid who do not qualify for Medicaid,” said Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, who led budget negotiations in the healthcare subcommittee. “People who are eligible should be on Medicaid, people who are not should not.”
Other amendments that didn’t pass would have restored funds to mental health services and suicide prevention programs, among others, boost provider rates for elderly care, and draw down $760,000 in federal funds for refugee resettlement programs and more.
Outside the realm of healthcare, the House approved an amendment appropriating $1 million to the state university system to implement House Bill 102, legislation signed by the governor earlier in the session significantly expanding permitless concealed carry of firearms in the state, including on college campuses.
Lawmakers also voted to remove funding for certain education programs like added financial aid for college students under the logic that money from the American Rescue Plan Act can be used instead. Jones and some of his colleagues spent part of the weekend crafting a bill to help implement that Congressional aid, House Bill 632, which will appear in the House Appropriations Committee as soon as Tuesday afternoon.
House Bill 2 awaits a final vote in the House before going to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee and then the full Senate. Lawmakers will consider further amendments to the budget throughout that process.
“This is a very solid and well-thought out bill for this point in time,” said Jones, emphasizing that this is not the final product.
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