Following two lengthy days of hearings, the House Appropriations Committee made amendments to HB 2 on Thursday and Friday and passed it out of committee. The full House of Representatives will begin debate on HB 2 later this week. While the Committee passed several amendments to partially restore some funds, the budget still includes devastating cuts to programs critical to Montana’s students, seniors, and our most vulnerable communities.
To recap, legislative leaders began the budgetary process in January, by adopting cuts in the governor’s proposed budget and then taking additional deep cuts to nearly every state agency. Subcommittees worked through January and February and added back some funds. However, most of those additions simply reflect present law adjustments, or the amount of funds needed to continue existing services into the next biennium, and did not restore the deep cuts to the underlying programs.
Areas facing the deepest cuts include senior and long-term care, which provides Medicaid services to seniors and Montanans with disabilities, and higher education, with major cuts to Montana’s colleges and universities.
Here is an update on what happened in House Appropriations last week:
- The deep cuts to Senior & Long-Term Care (SLTC) largely remain. While the Committee passed an amendment to add back some (but not all) federal funds, it did not add general fund dollars. This action is meaningless. In other words, if the legislature fails to appropriate state general fund dollars, Montana will not receive the federal matching funds. Therefore, SLTC continues to face a budget hole of $53 million in total funds below the present law budget. The Committee considered amendments to: fully restore legislative cuts to SLTC; pare back the current 8% vacancy savings; provide an increase to direct care worker wages; and restore funds for respite services for family caregivers. All of these amendments failed. The committee did add back about $200,000 in funds for independent living contracts within the Disability & Employment Transition Division.
- Deep cuts to higher education remain, even with the additional $11.6 million in higher education funding, but this represents only 1/3 of the cuts below a present law budget. Of this $11.6 million, about $9 million will go to the MUS units (MSU, UM, and satellite colleges and universities). With this restoration, community colleges received of $1.7 million, and Tribal colleges received $81,000. Amendments to add back additional funds for the university units, funds for the Montana Seed Lab, and funding for the Governor’s Best and Brightest Scholarship fund, all failed to pass. Prior to full Committee action last week, the higher education budget sat about $30 million below present law budget. This includes the $23 million in cuts taken in early action, as well as a $7.8 million present law adjustment that the Subcommittee did not take. Again, simply looking at a comparison of present law budget with legislative action so far, the Committee action last week restored about one-third of the total $30 million in cuts below the present law.
- The Committee restored funding to support child care providers and improvements to quality care. The STARS to Quality program is a voluntary program for child care providers to improve quality of early childhood education and care. Previously, the subcommittee added back the one-time-only funds for STARS to Quality, but made the funding contingent upon the passage of a bill to legalize and tax blackjack. The full Appropriations Committee stripped that contingency language, providing $2.4 million in OTO funds for STARS to Quality.
- The Committee failed to pass an amendment to restore funds for workplace safety programs. Subcommittee action included cuts to the Employment Relations Division, cutting about $1 million within the workplace safety division. Legislators noted that Montana has ranked as one of the worst states for the number of workplace accidents. This cut will result in greater pressure on the Department of Labor and will likely increase accidents in the workplace. An amendment to restore the funds failed to pass.
- Efforts to restore funding for Department of Military Affairs failed, including funding to support regional response teams. The early cuts in the session included across-the-board reductions to Department of Military Affairs and cuts to the 6 regional hazardous materials teams with Disaster & Emergency Services, which provides training and assistance to local response teams handling hazardous material. The cut in state funding results in additional loss of federal funds. An amendment to restore these funds failed.
- The Committee restored funds for the Governor’s airplane.
The full House of Representatives will hear HB 2 later this week, presenting another opportunity to restore these deep cuts, and ensure that our seniors and Montanans with disabilities can continue to receive the services they and their families in need.