- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Republican leaders in the Montana Senate want to scrap Gov. Steve Bullock’s plans for a statewide preschool program and use that money in the Democratic governor’s proposed budget to make sure highway projects stay on track.

Bullock’s budget proposal released last month calls for $12 million to launch a pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, which is a scaled-down version of his proposed $37 million “Early Edge” program that the Legislature rejected in 2014. The budget plan also sets aside $2.4 million for the Best Beginnings Stars to Quality Program, which is a rating system for early childhood programs.

The new Senate leaders chosen after November’s elections had previously warned that the state was facing a budget crunch with revenues coming in below expectations due in part to the decline of natural resources development. That leaves little room for new programs in the next two-year budget that the Legislature will approve in the session that begins next month, Senate President-elect Scott Sales said Friday.

“Like all families and businesses across Montana, Montana Republicans know a budget crisis is no time to start something new, especially if it isn’t necessary in the first place,” Sales said in a statement.

However, Sales and Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said that instead of just cutting the $14 million earmarked by Bullock for early education, they are proposing legislation to redirect that money into the state’s highway fund.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Transportation said it would delay requests for bids on 30 road construction contracts worth $144 million due to a budget shortfall in the agency. Montana Contractors Association officials said that would likely lead to layoffs by the companies that had planned to bid on the projects.

The road projects would be paid for with $130 million in federal money and $14 million in state money - the amount Bullock budgeted for early education.

Bullock blasted the GOP leaders’ proposal, saying he expects them to “act like grown-ups” and pass a budget that makes responsible investments for future generations.

“We’ve got some hard decisions to make as we look to pass a responsible budget in 2017, but pitting 4-year-old Montana kids against funding for highway infrastructure is not a constructive way to begin those conversations,” Bullock said in a statement.

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