Budget Negotiations Heat Up...with the Weather

In the Montana Legislature this 86th day, conference committees are meeting about the budget bills. This year, there's the usual House Bill 2, the state budget for the next biennium, along with its related policy bills, but there's also the legislation that authorizes and details the federal dollars and the projects they'll buy.

The House, with bipartisan support, passed the budget bills a few weeks ago, and the bills went to the Senate. That body changed things. Now, the changes in one bill affect another; some changes don't jive anymore, and some policy decisions and deletions are unacceptable. The conference committees are meeting to make the budget right. Again.

For House members, and most especially for House Democrats, the crux of the issue are three points that were included in the budget originally but were stripped or severely underfunded in the Senate.

We want the Healthy Montana Kids initiative funded. Voters last November, by a margin of 70%+, passed this initiative to ensure that all Montana children have access to affordable health care. The legislature must fund the will of the voters.

Education funding is paramount, and after years of court action about the legislature's failure to adequately fund education, the last two legislatures did increase education funding. We continued that funding in this budget, only to have the numbers slashed in the Senate. We have a responsibility to provide a quality education to Montana kids, and we must not underfund education. I'm a proud product of Montana public schools. We have the budget in conference committee, where we'll work like dogs to restore the education funding. I believe in not just adequate but ample education funding.

Agencies' budgets were cut an additional 2% across the board when the budget reached the Senate, after the House had cut budgets to a hair's breadth of acceptability, including a 7%--that's 7%--vacancy savings plan. An additional 2% cut is unjustified and guts key programs and departments, like the Commissioner of Political Practices and the Montana Historical Society.

The House Appropriations committee heard months of testimony on budget bills from the public and legislators and crafted a budget that was intricate, balanced, and slim. It is a responsible budget. Now, the task is restoring it to that state.

With tough budget negotiations, we must find some levity: some pics from this past week. Bill Wilson, looking the way we all feel these days:

Michele Reinhart's great turquoise and brown cowgirl boots, PERFECT for a Montana legislator. I've got to have a pair.


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