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$12 Billion State Budget Clears Montana House Of Representatives

Lawmakers in the Montana House of Representatives during a House debate on the state budget, March 22, 2021.
Montana Public Affairs Network
Lawmakers in the Montana House of Representatives during a House debate on the state budget, March 22, 2021.

Republicans in the Montana House of Representatives endorsed a state budget Monday that outlines $12 billion in spending over two years. The Republican majority advanced the state spending package with every Democrat voting against it. 

Debate turned emotional over how the state should spend money on public health. 

Through tears and gritted teeth, Rep. Rynalea Whiteman Pena, a Democrat from Lame Deer, spoke in support of a proposal from a fellow Democrat to add $1 million for state suicide prevention programs. She said her 24-year-old grandson died by suicide on Friday. 

"You cannot put a dollar amount on a life," Pena said.

Rep. Matt Regier, the Republican chair of the subcommittee that oversees the health department’s budget, asked lawmakers to vote against the amendment, saying more vetting of programs is needed. 

"We need to know where our dollars are going and how effective they are before we just throw more money at this problem."

The two-year spending bill proposes a roughly three-and-a-half percent increase to Montana’s total spending, compared to the last budgeting cycle. 

The GOP approved an amendment during the budget’s first House floor debate that would require state agencies to absorb a 5% vacancy savings, 1% more than Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte requested in his proposed budget in order to save the state money. 

Republican lawmakers also added $1 million in spending to help Montana colleges and universities prepare for a bill allowing concealed carry of firearms on campuses. They approved another amendment to cut more than $700,000 for need-based aid for college students as federal stimulus dollars are expected to fill the hole. 

Republicans voted down a $600,000 measure brought by Democrats to eliminate the copay on reduced-priced meals at public schools for low-income students

Every amendment proposed by Democratic lawmakers was rejected. 

The state budget package will move onto the Senate after a final House vote expected Tuesday. The Legislature is constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget. State revenue forecasters said last week money coming into the state is getting a major boost from the recent federal stimulus. 

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.