In the first day of floor debate on the state’s budget, House Republicans Friday held fast on their proposals to cut more than $200 million from state spending the next two years, rejecting all but one Democratic proposal to add back money for programs that serve the aged, the disabled and the poor.
The only crack in the GOP’s resolve came on the state-owned Montana Veterans Home in Columbia Falls, as 27 Republicans joined all 32 House Democrats to vote to reinstate full funding for the home and reject a proposal to privatize its operation.
The House also voted, by a narrow 53-47 margin, to chop an additional $2.3 million in federal family-planning funds that go to more than a dozen clinics that serve primarily low- and middle-income women.
Debate and votes on House Bill 2, the primary spending bill that sets the state budget for the next two years, continues today and Monday in the full House.
Before and during Friday’s six-hour debate on the HB2, leaders of the Republicans’ 68-32 majority in the House told their members to resist efforts to change a budget crafted by the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees, which spent weeks putting together a $3.6 billion plan.
The plan is anywhere from $200 million to $300 million less than what the state will spend in the current biennium, which ends June 30.
“None of these decisions has been easy,” said Rep. Walter McNutt, R-Sidney, the chair of the Appropriations Committee and the sponsor of HB2. “It’s been very difficult. There were people literally in tears making decisions that are tough, especially in the health and human services area.”
Leadership’s advice to stand fast against efforts to change the budget was heeded on nearly every floor vote Friday — including efforts by some Republicans to cut more deeply into the budget.
Rep. Wayne Stahl, R-Saco, led off the day’s debate with an amendment to reduce the number of state employees by another 440 people, cutting $53 million more from the budget.
“When are we going to do the job that we were supposed to do?” Stahl asked. “The taxpayers elected us all to take care of them, not to grow state government. … They wanted us to cut state government.”
But Stahl’s effort failed on a 38-62 vote, supported only by the party’s more conservative members.
Democrats tried two dozen times to amend money back into the bill, including money for a senior citizens’ prescription drug program, home-heating assistance for poor people, senior citizen centers and programs, foster care, and even an energy-development promotion division.
Nearly every time, all but a handful of Republicans voted no.
“We can’t be everything to everybody,” said Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber, on a proposal to restore full funding for a program that subsidizes prescription drugs for senior citizens. “We have to do the tough choices. We have to make them on this floor today. I urge you to vote no.”
The amendment failed on a 44-55 vote.
House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, seemed to acknowledge at the beginning of debate that his party’s efforts would fail – but said that wouldn’t stop them from trying, both in the House and later in the Senate, which will get the budget next week.
“As we propose changes to this budget, we want you to remember (Montanans who need help), because there is a heart, a soul, a face to the people we represent,” he said. “We can afford to do better and still meet our objectives (of a balanced budget). We have the resources to do better.”
Democrats succeeded only on a proposal to restore some $3 million for the Montana Veterans Home, but not without substantial Republican help.
Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, said the proposal to save money by privatizing operation of the 114-year-old home was presented and approved without enough time for veterans and the public to weigh in.
“A lot of people gave a lot of blood, sweat and tears to protect our freedoms,” he said. “The way it was done in committee wasn’t a fair and accurate way. We owe our veterans more than just looking at this for a week.”
Every Republican from heavily Republican northwest Montana voted for the amendment to restore the home’s funding, as did all 32 Democrats and several other Republicans.
Among them was Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, himself a military veteran.
“It’s pretty simple,” Ankney told fellow House members. “You don’t want to care for (veterans), as a taxpayer, then don’t send ’em.”