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Gov. Steve Bullock reads to a group of kids from the Children's Center preschool during an event at MCT Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday to launch Imagination Library in Missoula County. The organization mails a free book monthly to enrolled children from birth to age five.

HELENA – Republicans on a House budget panel voted Tuesday evening to reject Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s $37 million, two-year proposal for state-funded preschool in Montana.

The party-line, 12-8 vote by the House Appropriations Committee defeated an attempt by Democrats to insert the new program into House Bill 2, the session’s major budget bill.

The vote came as Republicans on the committee worked toward wrapping up their work on HB2 Tuesday night and sending it to the House floor.

The Republican majority on the panel has been rejecting nearly all Democratic-sponsored amendments attempting to add money to the state budget, saying it wants to maintain a bill that increases state spending about 8 percent over the next two years.

Rep. Roy Hollandsworth, R-Brady, said the vote to reject preschool funding wasn’t a statement on the merits of the program, but rather a decision by the GOP majority to keep increases in state education spending to 3 percent a year over the next two years.

“There are some other places where a little bit of money would go a long ways,” he said. “It was budget-driven.”

The preschool proposal is one of Bullock’s major initiatives this Legislature. His administration proposed allocating up to $37 million in state money to fund voluntary preschool, with school districts deciding whether to offer it and parents given the choice of whether to send their children to the program.

Montana is one of the few states in the nation without any state funding for preschool.

Denise Juneau, the state’s Democratic superintendent of public instruction and a supporter of the preschool program, said after the vote it’s “really not a lot of money, if you’re asking to fund these new programs across the state.”

Republicans’ rationale for rejecting the spending sounded like “keeping spending under some arbitrary number,” rather than deciding whether the spending is good policy or not, she said.

Juneau said the proposal isn’t dead, and that she expects supporters will try to insert it into the budget bill on the House floor next week.

Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, offered the amendment on Tuesday to include the $37 million preschool program in HB2.

“There has been a great deal of research that shows that this (program) is effective,” he said. “I can speak from personal experience that (preschool) benefited my children.”

Preschool helps children succeed and perform better in elementary school, he said, and it’s often unaffordable for many families.

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