House committee votes on main state budget bill

Final House committee votes on main state budget bill feature partisan wrangling

Associated Press
House committee votes on main state budget bill
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Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Richard Opper tells the House Appropriations Committee that the Gov. Steve Bullock administration still has issues with the GOP-led budget, on Monday, March 11, 2013 in Helena, Mont. (AP Photo/Matt Gouras)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- A Republican-led House committee rejected efforts Monday by Democrats to restore federal money for family planning into the developing state budget, setting up a protracted debate over the issue.

The Title X money makes up a small fraction of the state's main budget — $4.6 million out of roughly $10 billion in total spending of state and federal money. But it promises to be a main sticking point in ongoing budget negotiations.

Republicans opposed the restoration of the family planning money since some of it goes to Planned Parenthood, which also provides abortions. If it is not restored, the state will not get the funds from the federal government.

Democrats argued that federal law prohibits using any of the money on abortions and said the funds are needed in community health centers offering preventative care for women.

The House Appropriations Committee mostly rejected efforts Monday to change a budget plan developed over the past two months in GOP-led subcommittees. The main committee is preparing to send House Bill 2 to the floor March 19. It guides more than 90 percent of state spending.

Overall, it spends a little less state money than Gov. Steve Bullock's original request. But it spends more in federal money, which Republicans argue was necessary to account for inflationary Medicaid increases that hit after Bullock proposed his plan.

The panel approved the bill on a party-line 13-8 vote.

"I think it's a great budget," said Rep. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, the committee's chairman. "I don't feel like anyone was left out or shorted."

The governor's office slammed the Republicans for cutting some of its priorities — such as providing money for wildfires — while increasing the budget's overall size, calling it "irresponsible."

"It's inconsistent with the values of regular Montanans and not acceptable to the governor," said spokesman Kevin O'Brien.

Even Republicans recognized it will likely not be possible to get Bullock's signature on a budget bill in April that does not include the family planning money. Rep. Rob Cook of Conrad, one of just two Republicans to vote for its inclusion in a failed 11-10 vote, said he's not sure how the difference will be worked out.

"It's just very difficult to say," Cook said.

The top Democrat on the appropriations panel made it clear the issue will be kept in the limelight.

"If we are unable to get this approved in committee, clearly we are then headed for a floor fight," said Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh, D-Missoula. "Eliminating this funding because of disagreement with one provider, we are talking about Planned Parenthood here, is mind boggling."

Democrats immediately began applying pressure on an issue they believe they hold an advantage on with voters.

"It is time to stop playing politics with women's health care," state Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, said at a midday news conference.

Democrats argued most of the money goes to county health clinics that don't even offer abortion services. Kaufmann said about a third of the money for such clinics comes from the disputed federal funding, and many could be forced to close without it.

Republican leaders on the panel said many in the party — and the state — oppose any taxpayer money going to a group that provides abortion. They argued that there is no way to ensure the money doesn't help with the abortion side of Planned Parenthood's services.

"Many, many taxpayers have a moral objection to abortion," said Rep. Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton. "We are obligated as a legislative body to make sure that these funds are used in an appropriate manner."

Democrats tried and failed to make several other mostly small changes to the GOP plan. Some were aimed at restoring Bullock initiatives, such as $200,000 for a program aimed at keeping troubled students in school by helping them identify a career path.

Democrats resigned themselves to losing votes at this stage as the day wore on.

"The record is getting pretty clear here that these amendments will get shot down along party lines," Hollenbaugh said at one point.

Republicans said the process is far from over.

"We all know there are many more looks at this budget than here today," Cook said. "We are being a little disingenuous by pretending every bite at this apple is the last bite."

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