HELENA — The Republican-led Montana House of Representatives on Friday sent a $10.2 billion state budget for 2018-2019 to the Senate, where Democrats will redouble their efforts to add more money for health and education programs they say are inadequately funded in the spending plan.
The budget bill passed a final 58-40 vote Friday morning, a day after lawmakers in the Democratic minority tried to insert about $300 million through more than two dozen amendments during a lengthy floor debate. All of their amendments failed, most along party lines.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Nancy Ballance, the Hamilton Republican who shepherded the budget bill through the House, said no more money can be added without cutting elsewhere in the budget. She called the Democrats' proposals political theater designed to attract media attention.
That angered several Democrats, who said the House Republican plan seeks to balance the budget at the expense of the state's most vulnerable residents, and that they are giving a voice to the people who will be hurt the most.
"Trying to fix a flawed budget is not political theater," said Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula. "Trying to make a change is not political theater, and sharing stories from people back home who are scared is not political theater."
Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock said they will try to make some of the changes in the Senate.
"I recognize there are a lot more steps to be taken before the budget gets to my desk," Bullock said Thursday. "I would certainly hope that any amendments being offered by Democrats or Republicans are carefully thought through and deserve earnest discussion and contemplation."
Ballance walked back her "political theater" comment — somewhat — at the close of Thursday's debate.
"We all recognize that all of us are committed to doing the best we can for the citizens of Montana," she said.
But, she added, "I do consider it political theater when we talk about devastating cuts, those were the words that were used, devastating cuts, in areas where the facts say we appropriated more than in the previous session."
The House budget slightly increases state general fund spending compared to the 2016-2017 budget, but it is $19 million lower than Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's recommended spending plan.
Democrats say the House Republican's budget includes cuts to health and education programs that run deeper than that $19 million difference indicates.
The cuts include funding for nursing homes, home health care workers, the disabled, higher education and special education.
The House Republican budget would close this year's $119 million shortfall in the state's general fund by 2019 and leave $140 million in reserve for unexpected revenue changes and expenses. Ballance said she wants those reserves to be between $180 million and $200 million, while Bullock is pushing for a $300 million cushion.