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MT Senate advances major spending bill — but budget work yet to be done

Posted: 5:59 PM, Apr 04, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-04 19:59:13-04

— Story by Mike Dennison – MTN News

HELENA — After a relatively short debate, the state Senate Thursday endorsed the major spending bill that funds state government for the next two years — but leaders of both parties said there’s work to be done before the entire budget picture comes together.

“We’re not done,” said Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte. “We’ve got to be vigilant in these next two weeks to make sure that all our bases are covered and that we keep this budget in the black, that we keep it balanced.”

Senators voted 27-22 to advance House Bill 2, the pillar of the state’s $10 billion, two-year budget. After a final Senate vote in the next few days, HB2 goes back to the House — which could approve changes made by the Senate and send the measure to Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature.

The budget bill is advancing through the 2019 Legislature at a faster-than-usual pace, and senators spent only four hours debating it Thursday before endorsing it, on a bipartisan vote.

Yet the governor himself also told reporters this week that HB2 isn’t the last word on state spending plans.

“If we think the game’s over, if House Bill 2 gets to my desk?” he said. “No. The Legislature still has a heck of a lot of work to do, because we’ve got to pay for the government that people expect.”

At least two big-money issues have yet to be settled — Medicaid expansion, and an $80 million infrastructure bill — and scores of other bills that spend money or cut taxes are still alive.

During the closing moments of debate on HB2 Thursday, Sesso brandished a list of those bills and noted that the vast majority are sponsored by majority Republicans — and that very few of them would bring in any additional revenue, if needed.

Still, leaders of both parties complimented the work done so far on HB2 and the budget, saying members had worked well together to restore or partially restore budget cuts made in 2017 and 2018 because of a revenue shortfall.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said HB2 increases spending by about 2.9 percent and does a good job funding education, human services, highways, the judiciary and corrections. He also noted that lawmakers already have approved an increase in state funding for public schools and a raise for state employees, rather than leave them to the last minute.

“We’ve done all of this without general tax increases, and that’s a good thing,” Thomas added.

The only lengthy debate on HB2 Thursday came on the subject of funding for assisted-living homes, many of which have said they no longer accept residents funded by Medicaid, because the state-approved reimbursement is too low.

Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, offered an amendment to raise the rate from $95 a day to $115 a day, over 18 months. He said if people who need this care can’t get it, they may end up in nursing homes — at $202 a day.

“I’m here to say that we need to take care of these people who are elderly, Medicaid-eligible and need a place to go, and we don’t have to spend $202 a day,” he said.

Keenan’s amendment failed on a 23-24 vote, with nine Democrats and 15 Republicans voting against it. Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, tried again to amend more money for assisted living homes into the bill, but that one failed as well.

But Thomas promised that people concerned about the issue would meet early next week and determine how the money may be inserted into another bill.

Nearly all proposed amendments to add money to the bill were defeated on the floor Thursday.

One amendment that passed, 27-21, took $2.5 million from medical-marijuana tax revenue to finance behavioral health peer support services.