State House one step closer to approving budget


MISSOULA, Mont. - Ever since the gavel dropped in the opening session of the Montana Legislature we've been hearing about a "tight money" budget.

Thursday those money matters played out on the House floor. House Democrats failed in their attempts to add $300 million to the budget through 26 amendments.

Eventually the House did give initial approval to the budget for the next two years.

The vote fell along party lines with 59 Republicans voting for it, and 41 Democrats against it.

After initial anticipation for some following its presentation one of the issues the majority of Republicans did not spring for was additional funding to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Only one Republican in the House voted for it, that was Rep. Adam Rosendale of Billings.

"I think it affects the quality of caregivers and the quality of programs we can offer," said Larry Plant, the administrator of Lighthouse Assisted Living in Missoula.

Plant spoke to the legislature about additional funding earlier in session.

"I would be a lot happier if they'd give us more money," said Arleen Barnard.

Barnard has lived in the facility for five years. She says she's really happy at Lighthouse, but that wasn't the case for other facilities she's lived at.

The $42 million Democrats failed to restore for long-term care funding was cut from Gov. Steve Bullock's proposed budget, but Republican lawmakers say it really isn't a cut at all. A state House subcommittee looking into how much funding was spent on care last time saw the state spent less than the $600 million it was budgeted for, according to a representative out of Bozeman.

"In the two years that lapsed since then, only $570 million has actually been spent," said Rep. Tom Burnett (R-Bozeman). "The department hasn't spent what they're allowed, so we're going to keep the spending in this budget to the same level. So it's not a cut."

The biggest piece of the state budget also won't be getting any bigger, that's because Republican majority lawmakers shot down all amendments to increase education funding.

"There's a shortage of money," said Burnett. "The legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, are facing this reality and we're making do. Things are working out just fine. Education is in a good spot, as far as advocates of education don't have much to complain about. And Health and Human Services is basically made whole considering the revenues that are available and going to be made available."

A final vote on the $10.2 billion budget is expected Friday. It must pass that vote before it goes to the Senate for consideration.