Budget bill clears the House and is headed for the Senate

By: - March 23, 2023 7:17 pm

Chair of the House Appropriations Committee Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, speaks on the House floor Wednesday before debate started on House Bill 2. (Photo by Blair Miller/Daily Montanan)

The bill to appropriate more than $14 billion, including federal dollars, for state government for the upcoming two years advanced after a marathon hearing on the House floor Wednesday.

House Bill 2 passed second reading on a party line vote, Republicans in favor and Democrats in opposition, after more than a dozen attempts by Democrats to amend the bill failed.

Bill sponsor and Chairman of House Appropriations Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said Wednesday the budget was a “positive product,” taking into consideration the impact of inflation and population growth in the state.

Thursday, the bill was passed on third reading in the House, and it will go to Senate Finance and Claims.

Excluding federal dollars, the total budget for the next two years is at $4.2 billion. The legislative budget is $17.4 million more, less than 1% higher, than what was proposed in Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget, according to an overview from the Legislative Fiscal Division.

The budget increased 11.9% or $1.5 billion since last session, when including federal dollars coming to the state. Federal funds make up half of the state’s overall budget.

A legislative fiscal division analysis attributed the increases in part to Medicaid provider-rate and caseload adjustments in the Department of Public Health and Human Services, a topic of much debate in committee and on the floor. DPHHS makes up half of the state’s total budget.

The bill also reflected an increase in federal dollars from the Infrastructure, Investments and Jobs Act in the Department of Transportation.

Another hotly debated line item Wednesday included funding to send prisoners to a private prison in Arizona, citing capacity issues in the state. On the floor, Democrats pushed a variety of failed amendments, including one to allocate $600,000 to help children afford meals in school.

There was an 8.6% increase in general fund dollars since last session when excluding a shift in funds to the Office of Public Instruction, a legislative fiscal division analysis found. General fund dollars make up 30% of the state’s total budget.

Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said there are some really good things about the budget featuring bipartisan compromises.

“Where this budget fails, it fails in a way that’s stunning to me,” Abbott said.

Abbott said HB2 makes no direct investment in affordable housing, and the state is barely maintaining the status quo in childcare and came in “below 2019 cost of doing business provider rates” for Medicaid providers.

She said neighboring states like Idaho and North Dakota were passing big investments in childcare and that Montana was getting left behind regionally. She said that local governments were having to bail out the state for a “lack of commitment to solving problems.”

Democrats put forward two housing amendments to the budget, one to reinstate an emergency renter’s assistance program with $65 million and another to allocate $15 million per year for affordable housing projects in the state through the Housing Montana program. Both failed.

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, said she’s seen the legislature and the Governor’s Office say housing is a priority and then fail to act on it.

Funding for government services includes the Governor’s Office, the Secretary of State and the Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices, among others..

Legislative Services received more than $3 million to hire 19 employees to help with bill drafting and legal research. The legislature was also allocated $3.8 million for technology upgrades.

The Governor’s Office also got a $1.6 million boost in funding, including $335,000 for three positions: a position that will work on government efficiency initiatives, an internal audit manager, and a budget analyst, according to the budget summary.

The Indian Country Economic Development Program, which awards funds to Native American businesses around the state, was allocated $1.8 million and a full-time employee.

On the floor, legislators offered no amendments for Natural Resources and Transportation funds, the bulk of which are federal dollars. Natural resource agencies make up the smallest percentage of general fund appropriations at $98 million.

The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation saw a 13% budget increase and will spend$1.7 million on fire protection and mitigation programs.

Jones said the budget reflects the work of legislators and staff who came to a compromise that “both recognizes the taxpayer and the critical needs across our state.”

More work needs to be done, Jones said.

“It is a very good product for today,” Jones said in closing. “And deserves the support to move forward on its journey as we continue to try to find that balance that represents all of our perspectives and serves the needs of Montanans.”

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.