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Shot down budget amendments included early education

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By Michael Wright

Community News Service,UM School of Journalism

HELENA — The statewide budget is headed to the Senate after House Republicans shot down a pile of amendments from Democrats, and in a form the governor called “irresponsible” and said he would veto.

“I will not accept a budget that puts Montana’s fiscal health in jeopardy,” Gov. Steve Bullock said in a press conference.

House Bill 2 spends about $4 billion out of the general fund over the next two years. As crafted by Republicans, it increases spending, but not to the level the governor proposed in his budget.

Amendments that failed included increased funding for the Commissioner of Political Practices, the Office of the Public Defender and Office of Public Instruction.

One of the governor’s top priorities was among the failed amendments – a $37 million appropriation for expanding preschool programs for Montana 4-year-olds. The program would be voluntary for schools to offer, and voluntary for parents to send their kids.

Rep. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, brought the amendment on the floor, lauding the benefits of early childhood education – like increased reading levels, higher graduation rates and better socialization.

Several Democrats repeated some of her talking points, urging the members of the House to pass the amendment. Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, said offering free preschool to parents would save them a lot of money and give them more disposable income, but said that isn’t why the program should be funded.

“Those are collateral benefits,” Woods said, before adding that the benefits to children would be much better. “This is a very good goal.”

Republicans said the program might not help rural schools, since it would be asking them to add a program to already stretched staffs.

“I think rural schools need to be left out of this program,” said Rep. Mike Miller, R-Helmville.

Rep. Debra Lamm, R-Livingston, said she’d heard from several small schools who asked her to vote against it. She also noted that private preschool providers don’t support the program either.

Rep. Roy Hollandsworth – who chaired the first committee to look at the education portion of the budget – said the program might have merit, but that it was a lot of money that could be better spent elsewhere. He also said it wasn’t clear what the long-term cost would be.

“They’re asking for $37 million to implement a program that nobody has talked about the cost going forward,” Hollandsworth said.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where many of the failed amendments are likely to return.

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