Republicans resisted efforts from Democrats on Monday to restore positions and proposals trimmed from the state budget, rejecting appeals to increase revenue to avoid what Democrats called "ugly choices.''
Last week Gov. Steve Bullock's budget director and agency heads objected to lawmakers voting to cut unfilled positions across state government and use the funding to pay for other programs and services. The agency taking the biggest hit was the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, where about 100 long-term vacant positions were permanently cut.
Lawmakers moved House Bill 2, the state budget, out of the House Appropriations committee Monday on a 16-6 vote.
Before the vote, the committee restored seven positions to the vocational rehabilitation section of the health department. Rep. Eric Moore, a Republican from Miles City who chairs the subcommittee that worked on the health department's budget, said legislators heard the strongest pleas for workers there. The positions came at the expense of reductions elsewhere.
Rep. Marilyn Ryan, a Democrat from Missoula, said without any appetite for tax increases, lawmakers would have to continue weighing where to make cuts.
"Somewhere we have to start addressing revenue," Ryan said. "We will continue to make these ugly choices of who wins and who loses when we do not increase revenue."
Bullock, a Democrat, has proposed about $100 million in new revenue over the two-year budget as part of his $10.3 billion proposal. When Monday started, the budget lawmakers had in front of them was about $32 million less than what Bullock originally proposed in November.
As in sessions past, Republican leaders have said Bullock's tax proposals are dead on arrival. Bills to implement tax increases on accommodations and rental cars, alcohol and tobacco and the fees on some investor licenses have not yet been heard in the Legislature this session.
Lawmakers Monday made additional changes to the health department's budget, including cutting $3.8 million that a subcommittee unexpectedly approved last month to increase reimbursement rates on a waiver program that helps the elderly stay in their homes instead of institutions. The money will instead go to fill budget gaps in the Children's Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP. That's a free or low-cost insurance plan for qualifying children up to age 19.
A stream of money from the state's tobacco tax is dedicated to paying for CHIP, but lawmakers have used the funding elsewhere during the last few years. That's because the federal government was picking up an increased share of the cost for the CHIP program. The percentage of the program the federal government picks up will decrease drastically starting this year.
Moore said while the cuts were difficult to make, he feels the health department's budget has struck a good balance, adding lawmakers increased the rates some Medicaid providers are reimbursed for services.
"We're in a good position right now as far as a mixture of cutting vacancies versus filling the CHIP back-fill and getting some relief for providers," Moore said.
Legislators also voted against restoring money in the health department's budget for the governor's public preschool program. Democrats also tried to add back in nearly $22 million for preschool in the K-12 education budget, another move Republicans voted down. Also shot down Monday was an inflationary increase for special education.
Rep. Llew Jones, a Republican from Conrad, said he didn't oppose preschool or more school funding. But he wants to see how bills to accomplish those proposals do in the Legislature before appropriating the money to pay for them.
A Democratic bill to provide for public preschool and inflationary funding is awaiting a vote in the House Education Committee, while individual Republican bills on the topics are expected to have hearings this week.
While a budget subcommittee passed a tuition freeze for the state's higher education schools, it didn't fully fund need-based tuition aid. Democrats tried to pass $5 million more funding for that, but it was also defeated Monday.
In the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, lawmakers cut an unfunded land acquisitions specialist. Moore said that moving public lands to private ownership in his part of the state — eastern Montana — has come at a cost to local tax rolls.
Moore said he was supports the desire to add access for hunting, fishing and recreation, but wanted to remove the position to bring a conversation about how to better increase public access to land that doesn't involve the state "buying up private ranches."
"There are better and less costly ways to do it than the state getting into owning more land," Moore said.