- Associated Press - Friday, March 10, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A Montana budget committee on Friday rescinded more than $11 million in spending cuts for higher education that could have meant a steep rise in tuition at university campuses.

The action by the House Appropriations Committee was a relief not only to students and their families, but to legislative Democrats who had been pushing Republicans to restore funding to education and health programs that were at risk from the budget ax.

The $11.6 million restored to the proposed budget of the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education had been part of a 5 percent across-the-board budget roll back ordered across state agencies.

“This is a good first step toward keeping college opportunity affordable and accessible for Montanans,” Kevin McRae, a deputy for the Commissioner of Higher Education, said about the restored funds.

He added, however, that “one step in this direction will not prevent large tuition hikes or educational program cuts.”

Late Friday, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian amended McRae’s statement with a more optimistic one of his own that said it was a “great day for students in Montana, half of the proposed cuts restored with bipartisan support.”

Abbigail Belcher, who represents students at the University of Montana, said uncertainty over tuition hikes remained. Students at her campus had been facing tuition increases of about 20 percent.

“We’re still looking at huge holes to be filled,” she said.

More than $11 million in other cuts to higher education programs moved forward as part of the overall spending plan the Appropriations Committee approved on Friday.

“It’s a tough budget. No one’s going to get out of here without some kind of haircut,” said Rep. Mike Hopkins, a Republican from Missoula.

In all, about $23 million in cuts had been proposed in higher education.

While Democrats said they were relieved by the committee’s action, they said they were blindsided by the last-minute proposal to return the money.

Through the week, Montana House Democrats made impassioned pleas to restore funding to education and health care, including nearly $100 million in health care spending cut from Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposed budget.

Republicans weren’t budging much, however, holding firm in the House Appropriations Committee against big-ticket proposals brought forward by Democrats.

While opposed to large spending proposals by Democrats, the Republican-controlled Appropriations Committee agreed to modest changes to the health care budget.

Democrats and the governor’s office took pains to put a face and human voices behind the cold numbers. That wasn’t lost on Republicans, who asserted they knew there would be real-world consequences to the state budget.

Republican Rep. Jon Knokey of Bozeman offered to put back $220,000 in funding for the disabled, he said, after hearing testimony from two disabled people who spoke before the committee on Wednesday and after a recent visit to a nursing home in his hometown.

“At the nursing home, a couple of individuals - a patient and a nurse - actually swore at me because of these proposed cuts,” Knokey said.

“We spend a lot of time looking at a budget that is 6 inches thick,” Knokey said, referring to the binder of papers and numbers his committee is debating. “But the budget tells a story that politics can’t tell.”

At times, politics prevailed.

Another GOP-sponsored amendment took a dig at the governor’s office for reportedly using $10 million in Medicaid overpayments as a loan to the highway fund. As a condition for restoring a $26 million cut to the $571 million requested by the governor for long-term senior care, the committee agreed to allocate the money if the governor returned the loan.

While that vote was unanimous, Democrats and Republicans were drawn into a testy exchange about whether the loan was improper.

The governor’s office said Medicaid overpayments were transferred to the state’s unrestricted general fund account, and that the money used for transportation was not necessarily from health care funds.

“It appears some Republicans are grandstanding instead of working to solve the very real harm posed by cutting essential services for Montana seniors in need,” said Ronja Abel, the governor’s spokeswoman.

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