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Montana state budget marching toward finish line at Legislature; is final form already decided?

Posted: 3:51 PM, Apr 03, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-03 17:51:04-04

— Story by Mike Dennison – MTN News

HELENA — Before the Senate Finance and Claims Committee voted last week on the main bill that funds Montana’s $10.3 billion, two-year budget, its 19 members broke for an hour and met privately in two groups — one Democrats, one Republicans — to discuss proposed amendments to the bill.

When they returned, the panel voted on the multiple amendments, approving some and rejecting others, with scant debate, and sent House Bill 2 to the Senate floor on an 18-1 vote.

Legislative leaders who worked on the budget say this version of HB2 could be essentially its final form, ready to gain approval by the Senate this week and, after one last vote in the House, proceed to Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature.

“I feel like this session we’ve been able to hash out a lot of the differences early on, and there were just fewer of them,” says Sen. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, the chair of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. “I anticipate some (attempted) amendments on the Senate floor. I doubt many of them will get on.”

But for some who believe the budget could still be improved, the process is being rushed and largely dictated by only a few key decision-makers.

“So what happened to all of these (lawmakers) from all over the state of Montana that might have had a good idea?” asked veteran Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, a committee member. “Some people that might have good, productive solutions are not part of the solution. … The game has already been fixed.”

As an example, Keenan and others point to a proposal to increase funding that would allow more elderly, poor Montanans to access assisted living.

Last week, assisted-living home owners testified before the House Human Services Committee on a bill to increase this state funding by $5 million over the next two years and increase the number of slots by 200 people.

They said without higher reimbursement rates, they could no longer afford to accept Medicaid-funded residents — and those people, rather than staying in their community, would end up going to much more expensive nursing homes or, possibly, the Montana State Hospital.

“They have to have a place to go,” said Diana Helgeson of the Churchill Retirement Home in Manhattan. “We want to be one of those (places). But we need help. … And this is why we come back to you guys. This is why we need help, and that’s all we’re asking.”

The committee approved the bill and sent it to the full House, which endorsed it on an 89-10 vote last Friday. But then the bill was referred to the House Appropriations Committee, which killed it.

The previous day, in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, an amendment offered by Keenan to add most of this funding also was killed, on an 8-11 vote. Four Democrats on the panel, including Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte, joined seven Republicans to reject it.

Sesso told MTN News on Tuesday it was a difficult vote, but that there is only so much money to go around.

“Everybody’s going to leave this session with certain of their priorities unfunded,” he said. “And then at the same time, we’re going to leave with a balanced budget, where we tried to meet as many of the critical needs of this state as possible. And, we have to make tough choices.”

Sesso said Democrats, who are in the minority at the Legislature, fully acknowledge the budget has its shortcomings. But he also said he feels like HB2 is in generally good shape, with many programs seeing funding restored from cuts made during last year’s budget crisis and other vital programs on the verge of approval, such as Medicaid expansion.

Sesso, a veteran of eight legislatures who’s been on budget committees most of his career, said deciding the budget is always a matter of working within a finite amount of money, with input from lawmakers, the public and the governor’s office, on where to spend it equitably.

“I think that public policy does drive most of the funding, but, at the same time, there has to be some limits set so that one area of our state government does not get everything they want,” he says.

Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, a House Appropriations Committee member who voted for the assisted-living funding in committee in February, said monetary limits too often have become the first and overriding factor.

“It used to be, you had a good idea, you could get support for the good idea, and find funding for that idea,” she said. “Now it seems like funding drives policy, rather than policy drives funding.”

Keenan says he understands limited revenue, but that he’s troubled by how a half-dozen people seem to have decided what the budget will look like, rarely entertaining options from those outside that circle. In his view, that inner circle includes the chairs and vice-chairs of the budget committees and the governor’s office.

“(The budget) is brought to the Senate floor, and no amendments are going to be accepted,” he says. “So when we finish with House Bill 2 in the Senate, it’s pretty much a finished product, and the House votes to approve it and there’s no conference committee.”

When members of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee met in the private party caucuses before voting on HB2 last Thursday, they each had a list of proposed amendments.

MTN News obtained a copy of this list, with marks by each amendment, indicating whether it would be accepted or not.

In an interview this week, Osmundson said it’s not unusual for the committee to list out the amendments proposed for a major bill. The discussion of the amendments before the votes was an extension of discussions that have been occurring for the entire Legislature, he said.

“Predominantly, it was just making sure we had the amendments prepared, so we know what we’re voting on,” he said. “We just wanted to know, ahead of time, what was coming, and the arguments.”

Sesso said the discussion among Democrats at that meeting was “an informative, educational step to make sure everybody was clear on which amendments would be offered and why, and then, of course, as Democrats, we had to take a position one way or another on them.”

He acknowledged that a core of lawmakers, and the governor’s office, generally work out details on the budget in the final weeks of the Legislature, for they’re the ones most familiar with the details of an often-complex document. Yet whatever they produce, it still has one big, final check, he says: The entire Legislature.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to put the thing in front of our peers, on the floor and in committee, and do these amendments,” he says. “So I think everybody has an equal shot.”