Montana Senate approves main state budget bill

Senate House Bill 2 Debate
Posted at 6:53 PM, Apr 08, 2021

HELENA — Montana’s main budget bill is one step closer to final approval, after the state Senate passed House Bill 2 on Thursday.

The Senate spent about four hours going through and debating their own version of the bill, which lays out $12.6 billion in state spending for the next two years. HB 2 passed 34-16 in a preliminary vote, then senators suspended the rules and immediately passed it in a final vote, 33-17.

“I’m pleased with the work that was done, the negotiations that took place with the second floor, the agreements that were reached between the minority and the majority party and with the House,” said Senate Majority Leader Sen. Cary Smith, a Republican from Billings.

Senate President Sen. Mark Blasdel, a Republican from Kalispell, said, if they hadn’t moved up the final vote, it wouldn’t have happened until Monday, and they wanted to move HB 2 through the process sooner than that. He said it’s expected the House will reject the Senate’s amendments to the bill and send it to a conference committee, where members from both chambers can work out a final version.

During Thursday’s floor debate, Democratic senators made several attempts to add additional funding to HB 2. They proposed amendments like increasing services for people with disabilities, providing tuition assistance for students in two-year colleges, and covering costs for reduced-price school meals. All of those amendments failed to pass.

One of the closest votes – 22-28 – was on a proposal to add $1 million for suicide prevention programs. Supporters said suicide has become a crisis in Montana, and some additional resources could make a real difference. Opponents said the state is already putting significant funds into prevention efforts, and that they shouldn’t add more without a clearer idea of how that money can be used efficiently.

“We’ve tried to get a handle on this,” said Republican Sen. Bob Keenan of Bigfork. “Throwing more money out for suicide prevention feels good, but what are we getting for the money?”

“The data might be hard to find, but if the data is one person that we’ve saved their life – that could be someone in your family, a friend, community member – it’s worth it to me,” said Democratic Sen. Shane Morigeau of Missoula.

Sen. Brad Molnar, a Republican from Laurel, brought an amendment seeking to eliminate all funding for Medicaid expansion in Montana – about $50 million each of the next two years. He argued the program was encouraging too much dependence on government. Opponents of the proposal said many working Montanans were covered by Medicaid expansion, and now was not the time to threaten their health care.

The amendment failed, with 20 Republicans voting for it and 11 Republicans joining all 19 Democrats to oppose it.

HB 2 is usually the centerpiece of the legislative session, but this year, it is only part of a much bigger budget picture coming together in the session’s final days. That picture also includes House Bill 632, which will authorize spending billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief, and the eventual decision on how to use tax revenues from future recreational marijuana sales.