HELENA – The Montana House stunned observers Tuesday morning by endorsing the session’s major budget bill on a unanimous vote, with no amendments and virtually no debate – a historic departure from the usual days-long, partisan floor battle of sessions past.
In just 83 minutes, the House convened and then reviewed, debated and voted on House Bill 2, the $9 billion measure that sets state spending for most state agencies over the next two years.
Republican and Democratic leaders said afterward they agreed shortly before the Tuesday morning session opened to move House Bill 2 through the chamber with no changes, to show that the bulk of the proposed budget has solid, bipartisan support.
“We were sending a message that we could do it,” said Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “You can do this, you can do the people’s work ... and you can do it in a bipartisan way.
“You’ve got to bend a little. You’ve got to get the people’s work done.”
“Wow,” said Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh of Helena, the Democrats’ vice chair on the committee, as he rose on the House floor to make his final comments on the bill. “It’s been an interesting morning.”
HB2 appropriates $9 billion in state and federal funds for state agencies, public schools and the university system, a slight increase over the current two-year budget.
But it doesn’t include other significant proposed budget items, such as pay increases for state employees, $100 million in proposed building projects, tax cuts or money for projects dealing with impacts from booming oil and gas development along the Montana-North Dakota border.
Hollenbaugh said Democrats still believe the bill lacks critical funding for some key programs, such as health care, schools and Montana State Prison staffing, but that they could overlook those shortcomings for now and support the positive parts of HB2.
“This is the beginning of the process,” he said. “It’s not the end, by a long shot. ... We will be carrying our concerns to our colleagues in the Senate and hope that our concerns (are heard).”
The House voted 100-0 to endorse HB2, which faces a final, binding vote Wednesday before advancing to the Senate.
House leaders said talk of a single, unanimous vote on HB2, without amendments, began Monday afternoon and carried on into the evening, but wasn’t made final until moments before the Tuesday morning floor session began.
House Speaker Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, said both sides had to give a little: Conservatives had to agree to drop amendments to reduce spending in HB2 and liberal members didn’t get to make a run at adding back programs they felt were unduly cut during the committee process.
“It’s a reaffirmation that this process can work and people can have a good dialogue and a good discussion, and not let politics and rhetoric get in the way,” he said Tuesday morning. “There is a mutual respect between the parties and House Bill 2 can get into a lot of rhetoric and a lot of finger-pointing. I think both parties thought that was the best left out of the process.”
The Tuesday morning love fest – each side repeatedly complimented the work of the other on the budget – came just eight days after the House Appropriations Committee vote on HB2 ended with bitter complaints by Democrats about things left out of the budget.
Several Democratic members of the panel publicly apologized to Ankney the next day, saying they had been out of line.
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said while Democrats are unhappy with some of the omissions in HB2, it’s pretty close to what was requested by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock: “I think it’s a pretty impressive piece of work.”
Kevin O’Brien, deputy chief of staff for Bullock, said later Tuesday that the Legislature “still has a lot of work to do” on the budget.
“The governor is respectful of the legislative process, happy they’re working together and hopeful they can pass a budget that keeps Montana living within our means while adequately funding vital services,” he said.
Hunter said the unanimous support for HB2 may help other budget bills move in a bipartisan fashion as well, in the coming days before a deadline next week.
Hollenbaugh opened Tuesday debate on HB2 by talking about the omissions that concerned Democrats, such as the removal of $4.6 million in federal money for health services at family planning clinics around the state.
But then he said he couldn’t ignore what was in the bill, and called it “a great product.”
Moments later, Hollenbaugh moved to “close” the bill’s first section, meaning no amendments would be offered – and all 99 members present voted to close the section.
The same process followed on all five sections, with Democratic and Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee complimenting each other on the work they did the first two months of the session, as they put together the budget bill.
“Even though I was in the minority, I felt like we had a platform,” said Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Butte. “I felt that we had a very open process that led to a lot of compromises. We all made compromises, we all made tough decisions and we all went out into the hall to answer for it.”
Rep. Doug Coffin, D-Missoula, was excused for the day’s session, and was the missing vote as the sections were closed 99-0 – but he voted absentee on the final vote, making it 100-0 in favor of HB2.