What to know about the budget bill moving through the Legislature
- The state House advanced a proposed $14 billion budget along party lines. It’ll now head to the state Senate for consideration.
- Republicans championed the spending plan as a historic investment in state services while remaining fiscally conservative.
- Democrats opposed the proposal, saying it doesn’t go nearly far enough to address challenges that working families face.
- Gov. Gianforte says there’s still work to be done on the budget, and he's disappointed the public safety funding he proposed wasn't included.
- Lawmakers will have several more opportunities to amend the state budget before it reaches Gianforte’s desk for consideration.
Montana lawmakers spent about seven hours on the House Floor Wednesday debating the state’s two-year spending plan before passing a proposed budget along party lines. Montana Public Radio’s Shaylee Ragar joins Austin Amestoy to break down where money is and isn’t going.
Austin: Shaylee, we’ve passed some big milestones in this budgeting process, but there’s still a way to go. We know the state Legislature has to pass a budget for the next two years, so catch us up. What’s in it so far and how close is it to the finish line?
Shaylee: Right, Austin, the budget contained in House Bill 2 is top billing at the statehouse and lawmakers are working with a lot of money. This budget outlines more than $14 billion in spending, an 8.6% increase over the last budget, and we have a nearly $3 billion surplus leftover from the last biennial budget. Fiscal analysts largely attribute that extra cache to federal pandemic relief money the state received, and a higher-than-expected collection of tax revenue.
Austin: Whoa, that’s a lot of money.
Shaylee: It is, and it’s led to tons of debate over where that money should go. Some years, the state has just enough money to keep the lights on, so to speak. Some years, officials have to figure out where to cut spending, like in 2017 when we saw huge cuts to state funding for behavioral health services. And those are hard conversations, too.
This year, we’ve seen quite a few fights over where state dollars should go given the historic surplus, especially in the health and human services budget. Just because Republicans have a supermajority does not mean they agree on everything, but by the time the budget got to the floor, Republicans voted unanimously to pass it.
House Appropriations chair, Llew Jones, says he’s happy with the product the lawmakers have advanced.
Jones: It does have more work to be done in House Bill 2. But as it sits today, it represents the good work of a lot of people.
Austin: What are some of the areas where lawmakers are suggesting the state spend more money?
Shaylee: It includes a more than $300 million increase to Medicaid provider reimbursement rates, which will account for about 90% or more of an identified gap in those funds. It also includes funding for 12 months of Medicaid coverage for postpartum moms, inflationary adjustments for K-12 education, and funding to send 120 Montana inmates to a private prison in Arizona to ease capacity concerns at the state prison – Democrats pushed back against that.
House Minority Leader Kim Abbott says she sees lots of room for improvement in this budget.
Abbott: I know that there was hard work put into it, but it just does not address the problems we know we’re facing and it does not meet the scale of the crisis across the state.
Shaylee: House Democrats tried to add some of their priorities to the budget on the House floor but didn’t have the political power to get it done.
Austin: What did they propose?
Shaylee: There were more than a dozen proposals, including $600,000 to eliminate the copays low-income families pay for school lunches, $65 million for affordable housing and a proposal to cut a $2 million fund for the state to fight challenges to new laws in court and other litigation – you’ve done a lot of reporting on that, Austin. Democrats say it’s irresponsible to pass laws that are likely to lead to costly court battles, Republicans say it’s part of the job of the duly-elected Attorney General.
All of those amendments failed mostly along party lines, with Republicans voting against them.
Austin: But there will be other opportunities to amend the state budget.
Shaylee: Correct, the budget debate is far from over. The bill will now head to the state Senate for consideration and it will likely get amended there, even if they’re just small tweaks.
There are also several individual appropriations bills, like one to fully fund the gap in Medicaid provider rates and another to boost spending on child care subsidies. That’s another way lawmakers can add to the state’s spending plan.
Austin: Let’s zoom out a bit and go back to where this started — Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte released his own proposed budget before the session; he's now working with a supermajority of Republican lawmakers. Is he getting what he asked for?
Shaylee: Not all of it, no. Lawmakers are proposing spending about $30 million less than what Gov. Gianforte requested, which isn’t a huge difference in the grand scheme of things. They’ve left out his proposals for an annual child tax credit for middle-to-low income families, a proposal for disaster relief funding, and money for new staff, particularly in the Office of Public Defender.
The office requested 20 new attorneys, citing an average deficit of 60 attorneys worth of work over the last couple of years. Republican lawmakers voted to give the office 5 new attorneys over the biennium.
The governor is also not getting additional highway troopers, investigators and prosecutors he requested.
Austin: What does Gianforte have to say about the difference?
Shaylee: During a press conference Thursday, Gianforte was clear that he’s disappointed in the discrepancies between his budget and House Bill 2, particularly in public safety funding.
Gianforte: I think it’s a little ironic, given these needs that the state has and the priorities we’ve laid out, I haven’t gotten those bills yet, but the Legislature did increase their pay by 30%.
Shaylee: He also called on the Legislature to double the amount it’s set aside for a rainy day fund.
Austin: Anything else we should know about the budget at this point, Shaylee?
Shaylee: It’s really important to know that House Bill 2 is not all-encompassing. In fact, all of the state’s money for public works projects – roads, bridges, state facilities – are contained in companion bills outside of the Legislature’s main budget bill.
The governor has also already signed a package of six bills that equate to about a billion dollars in spending on tax rebates, tax cuts, paying off the state’s debt and infrastructure projects. That’s money outside of House Bill 2.
And then House Appropriations just heard a bill Thursday morning, the day after the big budget debate on the floor, to appropriate $150 million to the state health department to help cover some projected shortfalls, like the high cost of contract staff at the Montana State Hospital. It’s unusual that this money wasn’t debated in the health department budget subcommittee or on the floor.
The department is saying putting this funding in a separate bill will add transparency to the process. Whether lawmakers will go for that remains to be seen.
Austin: Good to have you in the Capitol keeping tabs on it all. Thanks for the breakdown, Shaylee!
Copyright 2023 Montana Public Radio