- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 25, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The Montana Legislature endorsed a proposal Tuesday to spend $6 million to test ways to expand pre-school access in the state, which opponents objected was a backdoor attempt to pass DemocraticGov. Steve Bullock’s pre-school grant proposal that failed earlier this session.

The measure would be paid for with what legislators are calling a “temporary hospital community benefit assessment” that would be charged to the state’s 14 largest hospitals. Those hospitals would pay the state a combined $4.3 million a year until 2019 under that fee, or about $13 million. What doesn’t go to the pre-school program would go to the state’s general fund.

Hospital officials “stepped up” to back the fee after state officials helped secure an increased federal Medicaid reimbursement rate that could yield state hospitals up to $212 million in that time, said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad.

Jones and other Republican supporters of the measure acknowledged the measure’s insertion into a budget companion bill was the result of negotiations with the Democratic governor’s office, but said it was completely different from the governor’s $12 million proposal that was previously rejected by lawmakers.

The proposal that passed initial votes in the House and Senate is an expansion of an existing program that deals with private pre-schools, not the public pre-school programs envisioned by the governor’s proposal, they said.

“Part of the negotiation package that occurred actually with a number of members here was that this was going to be acceptable,” Jones said.

Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel confirmed that the pre-school funding was part of a larger negotiation over tax policy bills that Republican lawmakers were seeking to become law. “It’s not as much funding as the governor would have hoped, but he’s pleased there will be something allocated to early childhood education this session,” she said.

The $6 million over two years would go to fund a pilot program meant to expand the state’s Stars to Quality Program, which is a voluntary improvement system where participating private early childhood programs are given ratings and incentives to improve their performance. The measure says the money is meant to increase 4- and 5-year-old children’s access to pre-school.

Conservative legislators pointed to a provision in the bill that says the state Department of Public Health and Human Services will “test multiple delivery models, including public programs, private programs and mixed delivery programs through public-private partnerships.” That’s evidence, they said, that the department will do more than expand the existing Stars to Quality program.

“What’s been slipped into this bill is the governor’s plans to fund preschools,” said Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell.

Despite the objections, the measure passed an initial vote in the House 72-28 and 32-15 in the Senate. They must pass a final vote in each chamber before the measure goes to Bullock.

Republican majority legislative leaders and Bullock’s office have been negotiating passage of several pieces of legislation in the session’s final days, though they are stuck on reaching a deal on a $78 million bill to fund infrastructure projects by issuing bonds.

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