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HELENA — Some House Republicans on Tuesday defended their party’s work on the public health and human services budget for the next two years and offered cost-saving ideas to ensure more is spent on critical human services for the elderly, disabled and children.

At a press conference, House Majority Leader Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton, said Republicans wanted to “change the conversation” and help put money where Montanans need it the most in that budget.

“Today’s message is going to be more about helping Montanans at the levels where they need it the most,” Ehli said.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, said protecting children is one of the state’s most important duties, “but we are failing many of our children.” She said the state’s foster care system is stretched too thin, too many kids are in foster care and the numbers keep growing.

“Tragically last year, 14 children died within a year of abuse reports being turned in,” she said. “But simply throwing money at problem not only isn’t working, but this endless cycle of study and then review and then assign a commission and then study it again is getting us absolutely nowhere. We must demand results and accountability. We should not spend one penny more on new programs or state buildings or things that clearly are not working, not one more penny, until we fix this problem that plaguing Montana and our kids.”

She said the subcommittee added $16 million to the department for child protective services, but it’s one-time-only money for the next two years and restricted in how it can be spent.

Legislators will demand evidence that the taxpayers’ money is really improving child protective services, with no further financial commitment until it sees evidence it is working, Ballance said.

Rep. Jon Knokey, R-Bozeman, said his House Bill 334 would provide that money appropriated by the Legislature for Medicaid can only be spent to pay for or administer Medicaid. Over the past two years, he said the Legislature set aside $110 million to be spent on Medicaid that the executive branch didn’t use on Medicaid recipients.

Over the past three years, Knokey said more than $34 million “has been robbed from funds that this legislative body had intended for seniors and their services as well as Montanans with disabilities.” Montanans deserve to know that the state’s money is being spent in ways never intended by the Legislature, he said.

Ehli is s sponsoring HB439, which he calls “the Robin Hood” bill to eliminate some management in state agencies. It would provide that a state employee would receive extra supervisory pay, only if the person manages six or more employees. It would not apply to agencies with less than 50 people.

“We have a culture at the top of our state government that continues to promote bloat and spending while there are basic services that are not being met for many Montanans,” Ehli said.

The House majority leader said 52.75 full-time equivalent supervisory jobs in the Department of Public Health and Human Services oversee only one other person. For all of state government, Ehli said, put the figure at 1,000 state employees across state government who supervise only one other person.

He estimated the savings from his bill would add $65 million to the state’s ending balance in 2019.

Ballance released a comparison by the Legislative Fiscal Division that showed the tentative budget set by the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Service was $36 million, or less than 1 percent, in total funds less than the $4.4 billion requested by Gov. Steve Bullock in his two-year proposed budget for the department.

She said DPPHS, with 3,000 employees, ought to be able to find $18 million in budget savings in each of the net two years.

On Friday, DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan blasted the subcommittee’s work on the department’s budget, saying, “The subcommittee’s action today harms Montana’s most vulnerable citizens, including children families, the elderly and people with disabilities.” She said it also sent “a dangerous message to families and devoted workers who are committed to protecting and supporting Montana’s children.”

On Tuesday, Ronja Abel spokeswoman for Bullock, issued this statement in response to the Republican press conference:

“Gov. Bullock has proposed a balanced, responsible budget that makes meaningful investments to grow the economy and create good-paying jobs. We’re pleased to see the Legislature agrees critical community services are necessary for seniors, children and Montana’s most vulnerable and we ask them to work on a realistic solution. It’s too important for politics to get in the way.”

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