In four terms in the Montana legislature few decisions have been as difficult as whether to uphold the governor’s veto on House Bill 12. It increases funding to businesses providing services to Medicaid patients and it passed with bipartisan support. Funding for increases to these providers was cut in 2010. Struggling with the devastating effects of the recession, many programs took hits then – including university budgets with students paying higher tuition; the Big Sky RX program was capped, leaving many seniors without assistance for expensive prescriptions; child protection services and tribal college programs were also cut back, or increases rescinded.
So why did the governor veto HB 12 and why am I upholding that veto? HB12 is the only bill that backfills any of the funding lost in 2010. We didn’t pass a bill to backfill university tuition, tribal college assistance, child protection services, senior prescriptions and so on. All are worthy.
Every spending bill goes through tremendous scrutiny both for its policy content and budget impact. It must pass House appropriations and Senate finance committees, and both chambers. Then the governor gets a final look – and it was his judgment that paying for all the bills passed put us too close to budgetary structural imbalance, where we literally take in less than we spend by $21 million – nearly a third of it in HB 12.
Second, House Bill 2, the budget bill, already increased funding for direct care workers, Medicaid providers and people with development disabilities – $65 million, including a 2 percent increase in provider reimbursement each year of the biennium. It’s overdue. It’s a little less than state employees received (although some will get no raise at all), and they do some of the most challenging work for some of the lowest wages in the state. HB2 increases provider reimbursement rates for the first time in four years.
Third, nothing in HB12 guarantees that the money will be used to increase employee wages, increase employee benefits, hire more employees or provide more services. I understand why providers want the backfilled money they thought was coming their way and I know that many get by only because of the generosity of local donors in their own communities. They do work that matters. Some might use the funding to improve employee wages and benefits, but those are permanent commitments and this is one-time-only funding. The governor might have offered an amendatory veto to HB12 or any of the over 200 bills that came to his desk when it was too late to amend them and send them back to the legislature for approval. But the Republican leadership didn’t give him that opportunity because they held up too many bills until the last days of the session, foreclosing on the governor the option of offering amendments.
When HB12 came to him, he was looking at a structural imbalance in the budget, a bill that backfilled cuts for only one program over all the others that took hits during the recession, and beneficiaries who were already included in the budget increases in HB2. He might have thought, “I’d be a lot more popular if I didn’t veto this bill.” But he did the tough thing.
We work with two figures in balancing the budget. One is the actual money in the bank now minus the actual money going out in expenditures now. That’s what the governor determined was at risk. The other is money we expect to have in the bank at the end of two years. That’s a higher figure and some legislators argue for spending the higher figure – but two years is a long time. Try budgeting your expected income for your expected expenses for two years. I know the governor didn’t do the easy thing, and supporting his decision was not easy either. But I will respect his reasons for vetoing HB12.
Rep. Franke Wilmer, D-Bozeman, represents House District 63 in the Montana Legislature.