- Associated Press - Thursday, March 16, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana House Republicans won an initial vote on the $10.2 billion state budget Thursday after shooting down every attempt by Democratic lawmakers to insert more money for health, education and other programs during a six-hour floor debate.

The House endorsed the 2018-2019 budget on party lines, with 59 Republicans voting for it and 41 Democrats voting against. That party-line vote was repeated for most of the 26 Democratic amendments that would have added $300 million for programs such as senior and long-term care, special education and emergency responder training for oil train derailments.

The Republican majority held firm, not giving up a single penny more than what was already in the bill. So defeated were the Democrats by the end of the marathon session that they cheered when just five Republicans defected to support an amendment to add $3.7 million for vocational education. The amendment still failed 54-46.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nancy Ballance, the Hamilton Republican who has shepherded the budget bill through legislative process to this point, said the discipline was needed to fix the state’s budget shortfall and leave enough money in reserve at the end of the two-year budget cycle.

She labeled the amendments “political theater” designed for media attention, but she walked back those comments - somewhat - after several Democrats took offense.

“We all recognize that all of us are committed to doing the best we can for the citizens of Montana,” she said. But, she added, “I do consider it political theater when we talk about devastating cuts, those were the words that were used, devastating cuts, in areas where the facts say we appropriated more than in the previous session.”

The House budget slightly increases state general fund spending compared to the 2016-2017 state budget, but it is $19 million lower than Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s recommended spending plan.

Democrats say the difference between the governor’s budget and the House Republican budget includes important programs for the state’s most vulnerable citizens, and the cuts to health and education programs go much deeper than the top-line numbers indicate.

“This budget isn’t just about numbers,” House Minority Leader Jenny Eck said. “There are real people with real stories behind these numbers.”

Rather than try to fix the budget shortfall through spending cuts alone, the Republican majority should pass Democratic bills that would raise taxes on the wealthy and take other measures to increase revenue to the state treasury, she said.

Republicans have repeatedly resisted raising taxes or imposing new ones.

The House will take a final vote before the budget bill goes to the Senate, where Democrats will redouble their efforts to insert more money. Bullock said in a news conference that there are still opportunities to negotiate a budget deal that satisfies all sides.

The House Republican budget would close this year’s $119 million shortfall in the state’s general fund by 2019 and leave $140 million in reserve for unexpected revenue changes and expenses. Ballance said she wants those reserves to be between $180 million and $200 million, while Bullock is pushing for a $300 million cushion.

The general fund, which is Montana’s treasury, contains the revenue the state collects from income taxes, corporation taxes, oil and gas taxes and other sources.

That revenue stream took a hit in recent years with the downturn in energy production and prices. That affected not only the state’s tax collections for oil, gas, coal and minerals, but has had a ripple effect to include corporation income taxes and individual income taxes.

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AP writer Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report.

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