Tim Leeds Havre Daily News email@example.com
Local leaders during a legislative update in Havre Wednesday said they were concerned about cuts being proposed in state spending by a Senate committee, including reductions in education, children’s health insurance programs and the possible loss of funding for an industrial park near Havre. The Senate Finance Committee has completed work on the state budget, sending that to the floor today. Wednesday, the committee was working on House Bill 645, the spending plan for money Montana is receiving under the federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the economic stimulus bill passed by Congress in February. One of the items possibly on the chopping block in the committee is $400,000 requested for the planned Montana Agro-Energy Industrial Park about 6 miles south of Havre. Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss told House Speaker Bob Bergren, appearing via video during the legislative update at Robins School in Havre, that he heard an amendment proposed eliminating that funding from HB 645. Bergren said that, although numerous amendments propose eliminating a list of project funding from the bill, he believes that funding the industrial park has support from both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate, and that the Havre-area legislators would work to keep it in the bill. But, he added, there is no way to know what will stay in the bill and what will come out. “Nothing’s done ’til the very end,” Bergren said. Education funding Havre School Superintendent Dennis Parman also asked about funding for the public schools. Earlier this week, the committee reduced a proposed spending increase for the base and per-student funding for education from 3 percent to 1 percent, with the intent to make up the difference using the federal stimulus money. Parman said in an interview after the legislative update that Using the federal money could cause problems, and the delay in knowing what the state funding will be is causing school districts problems now. The Havre district has delayed proposing a mill levy election because it does not know at what level the state funding will come in, Parman said. “I’d just like to know,” he said. “I’d like to be able to go to the voters with what the funding is.” The funding levy election normally would be held with the school elections on May 5. In a special meeting March 31, the school board approved delaying that election until more information about the state budget was available. The trustee election and a vote on an elementary building reserve fund will be held May 5. Parman added that the likely solution will have to be proposing a worst-case scenario and asking voters to approve the highest possible necessary mill levy. If the state funding comes in higher than expected, the district would not have to use the entire levy approved. “I’d rather not do that,” Parman said, adding, “We have to do that.” The finance committee is working to use funding from the federal stimulus money to bring the increase back to 3 percent, but Parman also has concerns about that. One is how to maintain the funding in the next funding cycle using one-time federal money for basic budget expenses could leave a hole in two years, he said. Children's health insurance Bergren and Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, who also spoke from Helena during the legislative update, took opposite sides on a proposal to cut funding for Healthy Kids Montana, which would increase children’s health insurance in the state. Bergren said cutting the funding “totally goes against” the overwhelming voter support for increasing the program. “We’re going to dig in our heels to make sure this gets funded,” he said. That proposal, approved by voters by a 70-percent margin, would use the Children's Health Insurance Program and Medicaid to provide health insurance to most of the 34,000 Montana children now without it. Republican leadership has worked to cut the state funding proposed for the program, including reducing the eligibility requirement from an income at 250 percent of the federal poverty level to 200 percent of the poverty level. Warburton said the vote approving the initiative to increase the insurance happened before the impacts of the global recession were known. “I do think the Senate is doing the right thing,” she said, adding that economists are saying this could be the worst depression Montana has seen since The Great Depression of the 1930s. “I do think this is the time to take the cautious approach,” Warburton said. Bergren said he takes a different stance. When the economy drops and people are working without health care, without insurance, that is the time to make sure the government is helping them, Bergren said. “I think it’s even more important to make sure health care improves, especially for children,” he said.