HELENA – Call it a crash course on $9 billion in state spending for everything from prisons to public schools – and then you start voting on it.
That’s the drill for 21 members of the House Appropriations Committee, which on Wednesday began three days of hearings on House Bill 2, the 59-page spending bill that lays out the state’s budget for the next two years.
As the panel sat down shortly after 8 a.m., chairman and Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip informed a Capitol hearing room packed with bureaucrats and lobbyists that there would be no voting Wednesday – or any day this week.
The panel’s votes on HB2 will wait until Monday, when committee members and the Bullock administration will make their runs at re-inserting spending for pet programs – or, in some cases, removing money they see as not necessary.
Dan Villa, the governor’s budget director, told the committee he mostly likes what he sees in HB2, as crafted by a half-dozen House-Senate budget panels the past two months.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an executive and legislative branch be this close this early in the session,” he said. “I want to thank your leadership for getting us there.”
But it’s not all roses for the administration, Villa said, as he told the panel that he’ll be pushing to add back a number of the governor’s key proposals, such as a program to help military veterans attending state colleges or ongoing funding for economic development on Montana’s Indian reservations.
Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh of Helena, the panel’s Democratic vice chair, said Democrats have some other changes in mind as well, such as restoring $4.5 million in federal funding for family planning clinics that provide cancer screenings and other health examinations and services for women. The money was cut earlier by Republicans, who don’t like that some of these funds go to Planned Parenthood of Montana, an abortion provider.
“That (program) goes to our core beliefs of providing health care to women, mostly low-income women,” he said. “This is preventative health care.”
Ankney, for his part, said the current version of HB2 looks pretty good, and that he hopes the committee makes few changes, if any. He said the bill includes a good balance of frugality and spending money on vital programs for education, public safety, infrastructure and the vulnerable.
“My wish is we get this thing as tight as possible,” he told reporters during a break. “I want them to lock it up. ... I’m just trying to figure out how to get the right people the money.”
Republicans hold a 13-8 majority on the committee, which must approve HB2 and send it to the House floor. Once the full House votes on the budget, the debate moves to the Senate.
In its current form, HB2 spends $23 million less than proposed by the Bullock administration for the next two years, in the state’s general fund.
Still, the general fund’s two-year total of $3.55 billion is nearly $300 million higher than the current budget, or 9 percent. When federal and other funds are included, HB2 has a $9 billion price tag, a $640 million increase over current levels for two years, almost an 8 percent increase.
Ankney, who briefly huddled in the hallway with House Speaker Mark Blasdel during a break in the meeting, said the focus should be on the general fund, which is financed by state taxes.
If HB2’s general fund spending is lower than proposed by the Democratic governor, enough Republicans can probably be found to support the bill and get it through the House, he indicated.
“I think the speaker (of the House) is pretty comfortable with this bill,” Ankney said. “The general fund – that’s what we care about.”
The panel listened to spending summaries for several smaller state agencies, such as Labor, Commerce and Military Affairs, before getting into the biggest agency – Public Health and Human Services – in the afternoon.
“For me, this department is about services for people,” said Mary Dalton, head of the agency’s Medicaid and health services branch manager. “It’s everything that this agency is designed for.”
The department has nearly 3,000 employees, 12 divisions – some of which are bigger than entire government departments – and a two-year budget of $3.6 billion, or 40 percent of the state’s entire budget.
The agency also has the biggest single increase in HB2 – some $53 million over the governor’s proposed budget for all funds, driven mostly by a big jump in caseload for Medicaid, the state-federal program providing health coverage for the poor.