All day Thursday in the House Chambers at the state capitol, Democrats rose to their feet asking for more funding in the state budget shaped by the Republican majority. All of those proposals were rejected before the budget passed second reading along party lines.
Democrats and Republicans in Montana are arguing over proposed tax increases to fund government programs because of a budget crunch from lower than expected state revenues from coal, oil and gas sales. Republican Nancy Ballance, the primary sponsor of budget legislation, known as House Bill 2, introduced the bill on the House floor just after 8 o'clock Thursday morning.
She says it funds essential services, and achieves the balanced budget required by the state's constitution.
Expecting Democrats would again try to put money back into government programs through amendments, namely in the health department, education and general government services, Representative Ballance started the debate by saying that rehashing already debated proposals was insulting to people on both sides of the aisle, who worked to build the budget during a tight financial year.
"So, unless there is another package of amendments that we haven't seen yet that makes cuts in other programs or serves to pay for these amendments, then this is simply political theater with no basis in reality — it's an exercise for the media."
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voted almost entirely along party lines as Democrats pushed 26 amendments, trying to add about $300 million into the budget.
As the Democratic proposals were shot down, the party repeatedly fought back, against Republican accusations that their efforts were motivated by political or theatrical intent, saying their job is to represent their constituents at every level of the budgeting process.
Missoula Democratic Representative Bryce Bennett:
"Advocating for programs that make a real difference in the lives of the people in my district and in all of our districts is not political theater. And sharing stories of the people back home who are scared of what we have done here is not political theater. And I can handle an insult, but I do not think that Montana can handle what we have left for this budget."
Democrats are proposing series of tax increases, including some on the wealthy, to pay for the larger allocations they want to give state agencies.
Republicans, including Nancy Balance say they can't support those increases, and with state revenues down, some programs aren't going to get funded as much as some people want:
"We all recognize that all of us in this room are trying to do the best we can for citizens of Montana. And I reconcile that we don’t necessarily on what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, or even what is the most important. We all balance our committees to the citizens of Montana, our seniors, the disabled, the mentally ill, the students, the local governments, and even the taxpayer, informed by our values, our faith and, I hope, lastly by our party.”
Ballance says when Democrats talk about devastating cuts to budgets, that's not what's happening. She says some of the agencies Democrats are talking about are actually receiving more money than they did in the state's last budget, even if it's not as much as money as they want.
But Democrats say some state agencies still won't get enough to provide adequate services to Montanans.
The state's budget totals over $10 billion. Over a third of that coming from federal funds.
For nearly two months, lawmakers have worked in Republican controlled subcommittees crafting the budget that will guide state spending over the next 2 years.
While Democrats exited the House Chambers Thursday afternoon calling the budget a "bad bill," Representative Nancy Ballance who chaired House Bill 2's committee work says it fills the budget gaps in essential government programs, except for one.
"The big hole is senior and long term care, we know that."
Republicans are pressuring Governor Steve Bullock to allow the legislature to use $10 million in federal Medicaid reimbursements that were placed in the state's general fund this winter to pay for the state programs that take care of senior citizens.
In January, Bullock promised that money to repair state highways, because he says it was general fund money, and not Medicaid money.
Republicans say that using that $10 million is the only way the state can fund the health care programs for senior citizens. But Bullock says it’s a false choice:
"I think we have the ability to fund senior and long term care, and I think that we should. I also think that Montanans in a state of 147,000 square miles expect that we can meet the state's share when it comes to federal construction projects and that we can do both."
It's unclear at this point where the funding gap for senior and long term care will come from.
Overall Bullock says if the budget that passed in the House showed up on his desk for him to sign, he would have some "grave concerns."
The state budget bill will go for another vote in the House Friday morning before it is sent to the Senate.
An updated state revenue forecast is expected to be released in the coming weeks, that could result in lawmakers having additional money to work with.