MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA The Senate voted Thursday to increase spending a little bit more, moving through a social programs budget that alone accounts for 40 percent of the state budget. New initiatives included a plan to pay for vaccinations that could prevent a type of cancer and more money for a health insurance plan for poor children. Gov. Brian Schweitzer said the budget may be getting too big, and said lawmakers need to start dialing back their initiatives. If they won’t, Schweitzer suggested he might have to cut with his veto authority. “What they need to do is put their hand on the dial, and instead of turning it clockwise, they need to start turning it counterclockwise,” Schweitzer said. The Senate Republican leader blasted what he characterized as a two-day effort by Democrats to raise spending to unsustainable levels. “We are not holding the line on spending,” said Sen. Corey Stapleton, R-Billings. He worried there might not be enough left over for the permanent property tax relief sought by Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, noted that amendments to increase spending have come from both Democrats and Republicans. She challenged Stapleton to offer amendments that reduce spending. Democratic leaders said the door is still open for more talks on permanent property tax relief, and they agreed Thursday to accept a new bill that could get the job done. The Senate worked through spending plans for colleges and many government agencies. The biggest piece remaining was the kindergarten through 12th grade budget worth about 20 percent of state spending. One move made Thursday increased the eligibility for the Children’s Health Insurance Program from 150 percent of poverty level to 200 percent. The money, about $1.2 million, would come from the tobacco tax. It is contingent on pending action by the federal government to also raise the eligibility level for matching funds. “I have every reason to believe that the federal government will reauthorize the program at a higher level,” said Sen. Dan Weinberg, Dwhitefish. Supporters said CHIP is an inexPensive program since federal matching money pays for most of it. Critics on the losing side of a 29-21 vote said it increases an entitlement they will be responsible for in coming years. “It’s very hard to bring something down once it gets up there,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber. Senators reversed themselves and approved a plan to provide vaccinations for girls to prevent the spread of the human papilloma virus, or HPV, which is linked to cervical cancer. About $400,000 would come out of money from a settlement with tobacco companies to pay for the vaccinations that can cost a few hundred dollars. Critics said the virus is spread through sexual contact, and giving vaccinations may encourage teenage girls to engage in risky sex. Supporters said the bill makes sure that middle school-aged girls who don’t have health insurance can afford to get the vaccination. “We hope that everyone who can take advantage of it will,” said Sen. John Brueggeman, Rpolson. The Department of Public Health and Human Services budget takes up about $3.1 billion of the $7.9 billion state budget that is roughly an equal mix of state tax money and federal funds. The Senate also endorsed the higher education budget Thursday, which includes enough money for the university tuition freeze sought by Schweitzer. Democrats led a successful move to scale back funding increases for community colleges by $1.4 million, saying lawmakers need to pare the budget in places. “We are adding and adding over the past two days, and we can’t continue to do that,” Sen. Trudi Schmidt, D-Great Falls, said in defending the reduction. Some Republican critics argued it is unfair to increase spending at universities by 24 percent, while increasing the rural two-year college budgets by only 14 percent. The Senate also reversed a move made a day earlier to spend about $1 million to buy a few acres for a new park in eastern Montana.