Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Senate passes plan to spend stimulus money

Republicans hold fast as Democrats
try to get more money for CHIP, K-12

Community News Service
UM School of Journalism

HELENA – The Senate managed to pass a bill to spend nearly $880 million of federal stimulus money despite clashes over money for education and children’s health care coverage. The vote was 27-23.

The GOP-controlled Senate made few amendments to House Bill 645, the stimulus bill. Democrats attempted to increase levels of education spending and to fully expand the Healthy Montana Kids Plan, but each amendment died on party lines.

“I feel that this money that we’re talking about now has been misused,” said Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula.

Williams said Republicans used their majority power to change the intent of the stimulus funds by diverting them away from education and health insurance for the poor.

Democrats wanted to give schools a 3 percent increases in their base and per student budgets, money that schools could count on being a permanent part of their future spending. Instead, Republicans voted for a 1 percent increases, but made up the difference with one-time federal stimulus funds that could disappear two years from now.

The fear, angry Democrats said, is that when the federal dollars are gone, schools will have to lay off employees.

“I’m certain during every one of your campaigns everyone said education comes first,” said Sen. David Wanzenried, D-Missoula. “My question is, does it really?”

But Republicans said schools face the same risks as every other state agency during a recession.

“If things get better, the governor can certainly propose to expand the budget next time,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber. “If things don’t get better, then schools will be on notice as Sen. Wanzenried said.”

The amendment failed 22-28.

Other failed amendments included a full expansion for the Healthy Montana Kids Plan and $7 million more for higher education.

Wanzenried said the bill was not ready to leave the Senate and go back to the House for approval because details were still emerging about funding errors and the availability of money.

“This is not a common sense approach to this, and to spend $1.3 billion without more deliberation is irresponsible,” Wanzenried said, taking into account the additional $575 million Montanans will receive in federal tax cuts under the bill.

But Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City, said the bill is passable, though it would have been nice to have more time to work on it.

“I know not everyone is happy with the way that it came out,” Story said.

Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, said he would vote against the stimulus bill, not because of the contents but he considers it bad national policy.

“There’s nothing but a hole in the ground,” Balyeat said. “We’re going to pass our children the greatest national debt ever imaginable.

Since the Senate amended the stimulus bill, it will need to go back to the House for approval.

It is highly likely the House will vote down the amendments, sending the stimulus bill into a conference committee of senators and representatives who will be asked to hash out a compromise.

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