HELENA — The Republican-controlled Montana House on Thursday gave preliminary approval to the proposed state budget on a 59-41 party-line vote.

Before the final vote, Republicans rejected all 25 amendments offered by Democrats that would have increased state spending by more than $300 million, mostly for programs for the elderly and disabled and education.

The budget, part of House Bill 2, faces a final House vote Friday before advancing to the Senate.

As it stands, the budget appropriates $10.2 billion in all funds for the next two years — slightly more than Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock proposed. That includes $4.02 billion in general funds from state tax revenue — less than Bullock proposed.

The budget is tight since tax collections for the current biennium came in about $300 million less than anticipated in 2015 due to lower-than-expected revenue from oil, gas and coal, and individual income and corporate income taxes.

In his proposed budget, Bullock relies on $123 million in proposed tax increases, along with $82.8 million in transfers, $55.4 million in fund switches and $73.8 million in spending reductions to make it balance, according to the Legislative Fiscal Division.

Republican legislative leaders have said repeatedly that these proposed tax hikes are nonstarters for them. Some Democratic tax bills have been tabled, although others are pending,

The debate was tense at times. Democrats were upset with the opening remarks by House Appropriations Chairwoman Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, who discussed the Democrats’ slate of proposed amendments.

“So, unless there is another package of amendments that we haven’t seen yet that makes cuts in other programs or services to pay for these amendments, then this is simply political theater with no basis in reality,” she said. “It’s an exercise for the media.

“While this may be mildly entertaining to some to make their political points, it is highly insulting to the people on both sides of the aisle who worked to fill the $300 million hole without reducing services for the working people, the poor, seniors, disabled people, schools, and counties.”

At the end of the debate, Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said, “I resent with all my heart the comment that what we did today was political theater. Trying to fix a flawed budget isn’t political theater. I can handle an insult, but I don’t think the people of Montana can handle what we’ve done with this budget.”

Ballance partially apologized later for her comment, saying, “I do recognize that all of us are committed to doing the best we can for the citizens of Montana.” But she said it is political theater when legislators talk about “devastating cuts” when the Legislature is appropriating more than it did two years ago, after coming into session with a $300 million revenue shortfall.

As Democrats proposed their amendments and colleagues weighed in on each one, Republicans didn’t engage in the debate. Instead, the chairmen of the five subcommittees mostly said they had appropriated the money available for critical programs.

Throughout the debate, Democratic legislators reminded Republicans of some of their tabled or forthcoming bills, which they said would raise millions in revenue to fund amendments.

These included bills to set a new top income tax rate for people making more than $500,000 a year and to end a tax break on capital gains income for millionaires.

House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, said it’s not too late to no longer “give a pass” to out-of-state and multimillion dollar corporations and to tax them instead at the same rate that Montana companies are taxed.

She also mentioned bills that stop taxing people who work for a living wage at the same tax rate as wealthy people who make their money from investments.

“We can do better,” Eck said.

Here are some of the big-ticket amendments that were rejected:

  • Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, proposed that if the state general fund revenue exceeds a target, direct-care workers in nursing homes and other facilities would get a $1/hour raise in 2018 and a $2/hour raise in 2019. It would cost an estimated $61 million. Most direct-care workers now are paid $9-$10 an hour for caring for families’ loved ones — less than what they could earn at fast-food restaurants, Democrats said.
  • Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman sought to add $48 million to the budget of the Montana University System over two years. Woods said he would raise the money through a pending bill that would charge each nonprofit hospital in Montana an annual fee equal to its CEO’s salary.
  • A proposal by Rep. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula would have restored $14 million to the senior and long-term care budget.
  • Rep. Marilyn Ryan, D-Missoula, would have restored $8.8 million to the budget for Medicaid caseloads and attract $18 million in federal matching funds.
  • Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, sought to reduce the vacancy savings rate for the Department of Public Health and Human Services to 4 percent from the 8 percent in the bill. It would have cost $6.7 million in general fund money.
  • Bennett had a proposal to appropriate $5 million in general fund money to a rainy-day fund so the Board of Regents could make loans to financially struggling colleges and universities.

Chuck Johnson covers politics and the Montana Legislature for the Chronicle.

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