- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A Republican-led Senate panel passed the state’s main budget bill Wednesday after adding about $50 million in funding through a deal negotiated with the Democratic governor’s office.

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee passed an amended House Bill 2 by a vote of 16-3. It’s tentatively scheduled for debate April 9 on the Senate floor.

The committee passed what chairman Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, called “an army of amendments” to House Bill 2 that adds about $26 million in funding for items including raises for corrections workers and money for services to help crime victims. The amendments also provide funding that likely will stave off the furlough of state employees and includes money for investments in mental health care.

The Senate committee also added about $25 million from a supplemental appropriations bill that was tabled in the House Appropriations Committee last week.

Among other items, House Bill 3 included $9 million in extra funding for public schools, $7 million for the Department of Corrections and $1.7 million for the Department of Justice. The bill was requested by the governor to make up for low budget estimates made last session and if not approved, could have meant layoffs and furloughs for employees before summer, state Budget Director Dan Villa said.

Republican Sen. Kristin Hansen of Havre, who moved one packet of negotiated amendments on Wednesday, said she met with at least two members of the House of Representatives on Tuesday and they’re aware of the deal. “I won’t say we have a happy love fest going on, but they know what we’re doing,” she said.

The Republican-led House passed a $10 billion budget bill earlier this month just hours after Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock threatened to veto it for failing to pay for critical services.

Villa said Wednesday the Senate added amendments that make the budget “more acceptable” to Bullock. The governor’s office staff and senators have been discussing the budget since the House passed a version far leaner than the one the governor proposed, Villa said.

Significant budget talks remain on issues of infrastructure, the proposed water compact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Medicaid expansion, state employee pay and more, Villa said.

“But for today, you know, I think schools can breathe a sigh of relief,” he said. “Certainly there’s another level of relief at the correctional system and at the Office of Public Defender that hopefully we can avoid furloughs for that staff.”

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