State budget gets Senate approval

A $12.6 billion spending plan chugs along

By: - April 8, 2021 3:31 pm

The Montana Capitol in Helena, Montana. The building was built in 1899, and an addition completed in 1911. Eric Seidle For the Daily Montanan.

The Montana Senate on Thursday signed off on the state’s $12.6 billion budget, rejecting amendments to defund Medicaid expansion and restore cuts made earlier in the process, among others, as House Bill 2 makes its penultimate steps to the governor’s desk.

Lawmakers in the upper chamber passed the spending package on a bipartisan 34-16 vote, with opposition from some Democrats and Republicans who either argued that the budget didn’t do enough to support Montanans or that it’s 3.6 percent growth since 2021 would prop up a creeping, bloated government, respectively.

Despite the efforts of some conservatives who opposed the plan, the budget that passed the Senate enshrines decisions made in committee to reverse cuts to programs like refugee resettlement that were made in the House.

Although I do think we still have some things missing, this budget is something I’ve been proud to work on and will be proud to push that green button for,” said Sen. Shane Morgieau, D-Missoula. 

One of the Republicans who voted against HB2, Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, made his dissatisfaction with the level of state spending clear when he revived last session’s debate over Medicaid expansion through an amendment to the budget for the Department of Public Health and Human Services that would have cut funding for the expanded program, potentially kicking thousands off their health insurance if eventually enshrined into law.

“For the first time in eight years, we are not going to build our economy on welfare recipients being tied to government largesse, but rather, as many as possible should get real jobs, advance, and show their children what it’s like to get up in the morning, grab their lunchbox and make $15 an hour,” Molnar said. 

Around 70 percent of Montanans eligible for medicaid expansion work.

Moderate Republicans and Democrats joined to kill the amendment 20-30. Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, compared Molnar’s argument to previous claims that politicians have made about supposed “welfare queens” living off the dole in an effort to downsize government assistance programs, while Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby, who carried Medicaid expansion in the Senate in 2019, said Molnar was attempting to derail the conversation.

“I certainly appreciate a good bill hijacking,” Small said.

The Department of Health and Human Services makes up the largest share of the state’s budget with around $6.1 billion. Spending in the agency is often hotly contested, and the session began with the potential of a $1 billion cut to the agency budget, though that was reversed. Even with that, several agencies emerged from the House’s budgeting process with less money than proposed in the governor’s budget.

In the end of March, the Senate Finance and Claims Committee erased some of those cuts from the House side when it added back $767,000 in federal pass-through dollars for refugee resettlement programs, funded a new district judge and drug treatment court in Flathead County and restored the Office of Public Instruction’s Comprehensive School and Community Treatment program, which allows Medicaid reimbursement for student mental health care. The Senate, at the urging of Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, also approved a small foster care provider-rate increase.

Still, the budget for agencies including DPHHS still has some holes in it. Senate Democrats proposed several amendments Thursday to add millions of dollars of funding for additional Medicaid waiver slots for senior and long-term care, fund a $1 million suicide prevention program cut in the House — too much money is spent on suicide programs with only questionable results, Republicans countered — and restore year-round Medicaid continuous eligibility, which allows those on the program to keep their healthcare all year without needing to repeatedly demonstrate that they qualify, among others.

Montana is one of two states in the country with continuous eligibility, and Republicans this year have made ending the system a priority, both in the form of budget amendments and Senate Bill 100. Supporters of continuous eligibility, however, point to the possibility of bureaucratic “churn” that could lead to qualified Montanans losing their healthcare.

People have complex lives, and this supports some of those complexities,” said Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings, who brought the amendment restoring continuous eligibility to the floor, calling it a more efficient way of administering medicaid. 

That amendment, along with all others from the Democrats, failed on largely party-line votes.

Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, who presented the DPHHS budget Thursday, repeatedly referenced a $20 million “box” of unrestricted funds that the department could use to fund programs and positions that House Bill 2 did not fund, whether that would be additional suicide prevention services or increased staff levels. That extra money comes from an enhanced federal medicaid match, or “FMAP,” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that nets the state an extra $20 million for each quarter the expanded rate is in place.

The budget reflects a slightly rosier economic picture than many expected before the session, said Senate Finance and Claims Chair Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo.

“Several months ago, we didn’t know all the effects COVID would have on our state,” he said. “The reality is, revenues are coming in strong. As a whole, Montanans are extremely resilient. This budget funds the services we expect, the services they have come to want, and it does so within inflation.” 

The changes the Senate approved Thursday are still not final. From here, the main spending bill still must go to a conference committee where lawmakers from the House and Senate will reconcile their different visions for the budget.

“This budget isn’t perfect, but it’s headed in the right direction,” said Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena.

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.