HELENA — A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans in the state Senate advanced the session’s major spending bill Saturday after voting to bar a potential increase of 500 state positions the next two years.
Yet the same coalition also beat back numerous attempts by conservative Republicans to cut spending further from the $9 billion bill that funds state government the next two years — and even agreed a few times to increase its spending on items as diverse as the judiciary system and a moose study.
“This is another step forward in establishing the state budget that provides for essential services and programs that have been asked for by the citizens of this state,” said House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte. “This is a step in the right direction.”
Senators also voted to restore $4.6 million in controversial federal funds for family-planning services — money that abortion opponents tried to block because some goes to clinics run by abortion provider Planned Parenthood of Montana.
The Senate voted 32-18 to endorse House Bill 2, setting up a final Senate vote on the measure next Tuesday. Eleven Republicans joined all 21 of the chamber’s Democrats in supporting the measure.
The Senate appears ready to pass the bill over the opposition of its Republican leadership, who voted with conservatives on most of the unsuccessful motions to cut the budget further.
House Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, urged members to vote down the budget bill but seemed resigned to the fact that it would pass.
“It’s kind of what I expected, but I was kind of hoping that we could slow the growth of government,” he said. “I’m hoping we can see some additional cuts and fiscal responsibility, and I’m still hoping we can get some tax cuts.
“I guess I can only sum it up with: Government feeds itself first, and the people get the scraps.”
Yet Republican Sen. Rick Ripley of Wolf Creek, who chairs the committee that examined the budget, said while government spending seems to keep increasing, the Legislature is paying for programs that people demand and some “extraordinary” obligations this year, such as public-employee pension fixes, oil-and-gas development impacts and the state pay plan.
“We put a little bit in, we took a little bit out,” he said. “Maybe that’s the way it should be, because we all represent different constituents. This is an extraordinarily large expenditure. But I think this is an extraordinary session.”
The bill’s $9 billion price tag represents a 10 percent increase over the current two-year budget period, including increases in the billions of dollars of federal funds contained in the budget.
For the state’s general fund, however, it increases spending about $170 million, or 5 percent over two years, to a total of $3.5 billion. The general fund is financed by state taxes and fees.
While HB2 is the largest spending bill before the Legislature, significant parts of the budget are contained in other measures that haven’t yet hit the Senate floor, or come close to being made final.
They include a pay raise for state employees, a fix for financially troubled public-employee pensions, a major school-funding bill and a proposal to fund water, sewer and other projects in areas of Eastern Montana impacted by booming oil-and-gas development along the North Dakota-Montana border.
Conservatives had prepared dozens of amendments Saturday to cut HB2, but minority Democrats fashioned an agreement with moderates to pass an amendment that would keep 500 positions from being added to the budget two years from now.
The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said state agencies with vacant positions won’t get to insert those positions into future budgets. It passed 34-16, with five Democrats joining all 29 Republicans in favor.
Sesso said passage of the amendment made it possible for some Republicans to support the final version of the bill.
Sen. Ed Walker, R-Billings, tried to amend the bill with an across-the-board 2 percent cut and tried several other times to cut spending from HB2.
“I’m just trying to find some ways that we can save taxpayers some money,” he said.
But the same coalition that passed the full bill rejected all of Walker’s and other conservatives’ attempts to cut its spending.
The Senate also voted 29-21 to restore the family planning funds — a key vote that made it possible for Democrats to support the final version of the bill. Eight Republicans joined all 21 Democrats in voting to restore the funding, which goes to 26 clinics across the state that provide contraception, disease screening and other services, primarily to low-income women.
The amendment said explicitly that the money cannot be used for anything in violation of federal law, which prohibits the money from being used to provide abortions.