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Montana COVID-19 testing
Montana COVID-19 testing lab
Montana COVID-19 testing lab
Boulder River Bridge view
Boulder River Bridge view
Combat Crochet
Combat Crochet
Montana Governor Steve Bullock at Innovate Montana 2019
Montana Governor Steve Bullock at Innovate Montana 2019
Bikers and Hikers stranded at Mystic Lake Cabin
Bikers and Hikers stranded at Mystic Lake Cabin
Goat Fire mapped at 300 acres
Goat Fire fought in rugged terrain
Goat Fire fought in rugged terrain
Griz management exceeds sustainable mortality rate
Griz management exceeds sustainable mortality rate

Lawmakers abruptly postponed Friday floor sessions in response to a positive COVID-19 case inside the Capitol. Here’s what happened, and how it affects the Legislature’s schedule.

Montana Capitol House chamber
Credit: Simon Foot via Flickr
 

HELENA – The Legislature announced late yesterday that Friday floor sessions have been postponed while it responds to a positive case of COVID-19 at the Capitol.

The announcement stated that a “member of the government affairs community” had tested positive for the virus, and that both the House and Senate floor sessions would be delayed “out of an abundance of caution” to buy the Legislature’s contact tracer time to inform close contacts of the situation. Committees scheduled to meet Friday were given the option to meet remotely in accordance with the Legislature’s COVID-19 protocols. Since the start of the session, six lawmakers, as well as Gov. Greg Gianforte and two staffers in the governor’s office, have tested positive for COVID-19, though none of those cases resulted in floor session postponements.

Montana Free Press spoke Friday morning with Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, a deputized public health officer and chair of the Legislature’s COVID-19 Panel. Ellsworth said the situation developed rapidly late Thursday afternoon. After receiving confirmation of the positive case, Ellsworth spoke with the individual, who he said was already getting in touch with the contact tracer to share a list of close contacts. Ellsworth added that several of those contacts were still inside the Capitol.

“Even though it is not my job to contact trace, out of an abundance of caution, I spoke to some of those individuals that were still there and asked them to please quarantine and they would be getting a call from the contact tracer,” Ellsworth said. “And everybody obliged that was still in the building at that time.”

Ellsworth himself was one of the close contacts but had already received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Ellsworth confirmed that a number of lawmakers will be quarantining as close contacts, and several scheduled events both in and out of the Capitol Thursday night were canceled. He added that no one else associated with the case has tested positive and that, to the best of his knowledge, the contact tracing was complete as of Friday morning.

In an email to MTFP, Erin Loranger, communications director for the Senate Democrats, wrote that Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-Helena, was in a committee hearing when she “heard rumors the building was being shut down.” According to Loranger, Cohenour sought out Ellsworth and was informed of one positive COVID-19 case.

“[Cohenour] was not included in discussions about how to handle the positive case or why this positive case led to closing the Capitol when past cases did not,” Loranger wrote. “By the time she was informed, they had already begun disinfecting the building.”

Asked why the Thursday case led to a postponement of floor sessions when past positive tests had not, Ellsworth told MTFP the latest situation involved more contact tracing than previous cases. The confirmation came late in the day, he added, and he wanted to be sure the contact tracer had time to complete her work.

The situation raises broader questions about the postponement’s impacts on the session’s timeline. According to Dylan Klapmeier, communications director for the House Majority, the House was slated to vote on roughly 30 bills on second reading today, and more than 20 bills on third reading. Of the latter, seven were general House bills with Senate amendments, which would have required action Friday to meet a scheduled transmittal deadline. In the Senate, majority communications director Kyle Schmauch said, there were roughly 20 bills scheduled for second reading votes, and about five for third reading. Those votes, and the transmittal deadline, will now carry over to next week. 

Ellsworth said that since neither chamber convened for a floor session Friday, the day will not count against the Legislature’s session schedule. Lawmakers will discuss the situation further this weekend and make a determination about when and how to reconvene next week. 

“If we took a few days off or took whatever amount of days off we need to, we can just come back,” Ellsworth said. “Nobody’s in a hurry. Nobody’s in a rush. We have no deadline per se to meet because if we’re not there, we’re not gaveling in. So our days that we have remaining are still remaining.”

At this stage in the session, Ellsworth said, there’s not much work left for individual committees, but those committees are continuing to work and can still meet and take executive action. He added that House and Senate floor sessions could resume as early as Monday.

Ellsworth did note that since legislators are considered essential workers, those who have been contact traced could still enter the Capitol provided they’re not symptomatic, maintain social distancing and wear masks. He said that lawmakers who are quarantining or feel uncomfortable legislating in person can participate remotely, and those who are not close contacts or have been vaccinated are free to enter the building. However, he stressed that the Legislature is “not going to force anybody to be there.” Ellsworth said he views the response to the situation as an effective and rapid utilization of the protocols lawmakers set down months ago to handle just such a development.

“I don’t think you could ask for a better scenario on how to deal with the situation,” Ellsworth said. “We’re talking about one positive case. But we want to be cautious and certainly don’t want to put the community or any of our workers or any of the staff, any of the legislators in a precarious situation.”

The Legislature updated the situation early Friday evening, with Senate Republican leadership stating via email that the postponement of House and Senate floor sessions will continue through Monday. The email added that lawmakers will participate in Monday committee hearings virtually unless they have technical issues, internet problems or “other extenuating circumstances.” Public testimony in those hearings will be taken exclusively over Zoom.

“Nine legislators, 7 staff, and 2 other individuals received tests through the Legislature’s testing program today. All tested negative,” the email said. “Legislators and others can receive tests at many locations other than the Legislature’s testing program, and many legislators have returned to their districts for the weekend.” The email also stated that fewer than a dozen legislators had been contact traced in relation to the positive COVID-19 case confirmed Thursday.

This story was updated April 16, 2021, to include new information provided by Senate Republican leadership.



 

 

Executive, legislative branch pitted against the judiciary

 
Courtroom illustration (Getty Images)

The Montana Attorney General’s Office told the Montana Supreme Court that it will not follow orders the high court issued on Sunday, which would have stopped a legislative subpoena, and said it was continuing in its efforts to review the email of the court administrator as well as the conduct of other judges.

In a letter written by Lieutenant Attorney General Kristin Hansen on Monday and sent on Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s letterhead, she said the court’s order violates the state’s separation of power. The letter was sent to Justice Jim Rice, who is the acting chief justice in the matter.

“The Legislature does not recognize this Court’s order as binding and will not abide it,” Hansen wrote. “The Legislature will not entertain the Court’s interference in the Legislature’s investigation of the serious and troubling conduct of members of the judiciary.”

On Friday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, issued a legislative subpoena to Department of Administration Director Misty Ann Giles for several months’ worth of email of courts administrator Beth McLaughlin. The subpoena demanded the emails by 3 p.m. Saturday.

In an emergency motion to the Supreme Court, McLaughlin’s attorney, Randy Cox, filed to quash or stop the subpoena because of concerns about emails containing confidential matters unrelated to Senate Bill 140, which Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law. That law abolished the judicial nomination commission and also gave the governor power to appoint judges directly.

Lawmakers raised concerns about the impartiality of the judiciary after it was learned that the Montana Judges Association had polled its members as SB140 was proposed. McLaughlin originally reported that less than 40 members of the judiciary had voted in the informal poll, and the Supreme Court held that the six members currently hearing the challenge had not participated, rendering the concern moot. Meanwhile Chief Justice Mike McGrath recused himself, while his appointed replacement, Judge Kurt Krueger, recused himself after it was revealed that he had opposed the measure.

In emails obtained by the Daily Montanan, Senate staff were not satisfied with McLaughlin’s summary of the poll and demanded a more detailed canvassing of her email, which prompted the emergency motion to the state’s Supreme Court on Saturday and an order from the court on Sunday stopping the subpoena. That motion listed 10 possible categories of privacy concerns, including medical information, court personnel details and youth court issues.

On Monday, though, the Attorney General’s Office argued that the court does not have the power to stop a legislative subpoena and that lawmakers have a duty to look into possible judicial misconduct. Because of the separation of powers, Knudsen’s office said that it was proceeding with the search of McLaughlin’s email.

The next move is unclear, according to some legal experts. One of the challenges with this situation is some of the specific circumstances of the case, said Anthony Johnstone, a professor at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana.

Usually, when controversy arises among the different branches, one side is pitted against the other. However, all three branches of government are involved in this case. The Legislature has issued its own subpoena, which it has the power to do, Johnstone explained. But the Attorney General’s office, which is part of the executive branch, is defending the lawmakers against the judiciary. Moreover, McLaughlin’s email happens to be on a state computer server, which is maintained by the Department of Administration, part of the executive branch. Because the administration has access to the email, it commanded Giles to retrieve the email from another – and presumably independent – branch of government.

The letter to the court also criticizes the court for issuing the order “outside of business hours and without opportunity for response,” but makes no mention of the subpoena’s deadline of Saturday afternoon.  Hansen’s letter also said that the email search “is wholly unrelated to the pending matter and concerns the ethical conduct of the Court Administrator and members of the Montana State Judiciary.”

Finally, the letter said that the concerns raised by McLaughlin about privacy concerns will be respected.

“It is a flailing argument by the Court Administrator to suggest the Legislature, when reviewing documents produced in response to subpoena would not understand and act on its duty to redact personal or private information, and there is no suggestion that would ever have happened in this matter,” Hansen said.

Johnstone said the matter boils down to how the separation of powers are construed in a sort of high-stakes game of “rock-paper-scissors.” Each branch has its own powers, including the lawmakers’ ability to subpoena, and each branch has immunities protecting it from the others.

“The lines of where the powers end and the immunities begin are determined by principles of the powers rather than by bright lines in the law,” Johnstone said. “Traditionally the branches have shown restraint and respect for their counterparts in the other branches, so we don’t see the questions of judicial powers and immunity come to a head the way they’ve done here.”

And most of the time, the conflicts are bilateral, meaning between two parties.

“There’s the additional aspect is that the executive branch is cooperating with the legislative branch and not the judicial and that complicates it,” Johnstone said. “No one wins when branches are at war with each other. It jeopardizes the rule of law to make claims of power in the absence of a referee, which is what you have when making claims about power.”

 



 

 
Gilda House performs at the Pub Station in Billings as crowds slowly return to live music beneath the Big Sky (Photo by Arianna Skoog for the Daily Montanan)

BILLINGS — Glowing blue against the stage lights, fans of Meg Gildehaus beamed with a special kind of delight, childlike almost, as they stood clustered in groups during the musician’s April 3 concert at the Pub Station.

The concert was one in a series of socially-distanced performances that began in March. These concerts marked the first time the stage has been used since the pandemic forced the closure of the nation’s live entertainment venues more than a year ago.

For Pub Station concerts, fans could purchase tickets in groups of four or six, and they were separated from others by metal fencing set in a U-shape. Such barriers, typically erected at the front of the stage to keep the massive crowds at bay, didn’t seem to matter when, after more than a year, a really loud rock concert was pumping through everyone’s bodies.

“This was the most energetic show I’ve ever played, probably because people were hungry for live music, and we all fed off each other,” said Gildehaus, who selected the date specifically to be a countdown—4/3/21—where she dropped a year’s worth of angst into a new, anathematic album.

Crowds dance and watch Gild House at the Pub Station in Billings as it begins reopening for live events (Photo by Arianna Skoog for the Daily Montanan).

Gildehaus, who plays under the name Gilda House, was one of several concerts to sell out after the Pub announced it was returning to live music. A sell-out isn’t what it once was, however, bringing just 100 people into the venue—capacity 800.

Sean Lynch, owner and operator of The Pub Station with his wife, Ann Kosempa, estimates the venue (prior to COVID-19) brought upwards of $24 million annually into the Billings economy and attracted more than 55,000 people to downtown for live music or private events.

Lynch has been instrumental in lobbying at a state and national level for funding support for entertainment venues, which were the first to close during the onset of the pandemic, experiencing a complete loss of revenue, and many remain shuttered.

“Billings, Montana wants to see national bands, and for me to get national bands going I have to do things to help Denver, and Minneapolis, and all these other surrounding areas get up and running,” said Lynch. “If we don’t have those, we don’t have anything. This is a national business.”

Lynch is currently the co-chairman of a reopening task force and the chair of the advocacy side of reopening for National Independent Venue Association, a group of more than 3,000 independent venues across the U.S. NIVA was instrumental in pushing for this funding through their advocacy campaign, “Save Our Stages.”

In December, that action bore fruit, as the SBA announced the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, which allocated more than $16 billion in relief funding to venues, performing arts centers, theaters, museums, and qualifying event spaces across the country. Operators can apply for grants of as much as $10 million.

The application portal opened Thursday for venues to apply but was plagued with glitches and shut down shortly after. According to a tweet by the SBA, “The portal was shut down to ensure fair and equal access once it is reopened.”

Allocating billions in funding toward such organizations is founded in part by their inability to operate and contribute back to the economies of their communities. Performance venues will be some of the last to open in the nation, as their primary objective is to gather large amounts of people together, often in close contact, to share in a collective experience.

In September 2020, more than $10 million was divvied up to entertainment organizations across Montana, from venues to theaters to sports teams. If it was entertaining and had lost most if not all revenue because of the pandemic, an infusion of funds from the Live Entertainment Grants was available from the state.

The loss of entertainment revenue in 2020 has been a devastation not yet calculated. Prior to the pandemic, the nation’s arts and culture sector was a $919.7 billion industry that supported more than 5 million jobs. That sector, including nonprofits, commercial arts and education, represented 4.3% of the nation’s economy – a 6 percent increase since 2018.

In Montana, the arts were a $1.8 billion industry in 2019, representing about 3.4 percent of the Montana economy with 15,811 jobs (about 3 percent of employment in the state), according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The country’s cries to “get back to work” are being heard, and the live music industry is no exception.

Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs, a Bozeman-based bluegrass band, were the first to reopen the stage in March at the Pub Station, and tickets sold so well they added a second show.

Laney Lou and the Bird Dogs perform at the Pub Station in Billings as the first live act to play on stage in more than a year (Photo by Tyler Rel for the Daily Montanan).

“Even if it’s only 100 people allowed in the venue, it was getting the bartenders back to their jobs, and it got us onstage playing for our fans,” said Lena Schiffer, frontwoman for the band. “It got us out doing our job, and it reminded us why we were a band.”

Those two concerts were the first for Laney Lou and Bird Dogs in a year – with the exception of a couple outdoor shows last summer.

“It’s very strange to count on one hand how many shows you play a year,” said Schiffer, who estimates the Bird Dogs were playing upwards of 150 shows a year, and a good percentage of those dates were on the road.

For Schiffer and the Bird Dogs, they’ve been in that all-too-familiar mode of wait-and-see. As the band eyes a summertime tour, they are booking dates expecting to have some movement or cancellations.

“We don’t want to put ourselves in a dangerous position, but it is all going to come down to timing, when everyone feels safe,” said Schiffer. “The outdoor venues definitely make us feel better, but at the same time, we are all ready to get back to our job.”

Montana’s restrictions on gathering together were lifted in early 2021, and there is nothing preventing large events from taking place. But the entertainment industry can’t just spring back into action. There’s a connected web of routes, finances, and varying guidelines for each state that continue to make a return to live performances very tricky.

“We are really in a hard spot,” said Lynch. “The depth of the industry and how intertwined everything is … I could open right now at full capacity, but I don’t have anything to give you. Not only do we have to make it financially work, but the artist has to, also.”

One of the state’s largest performing arts venues, Alberta Bair Theater, is sitting pretty, waiting to unveil a completed $13.6 million renovation to the aging facility in downtown Billings. The irony, now, is even though they have the infrastructure to host bigger touring acts, fans and venue operators will just have to wait.

“Public safety is the first priority,” said Jody Grant, programming and marketing director for the Alberta Bair Theater. “But, in balance with that, we have to get actors and performers working again, but not at a loss to the theater.”

Booking acts for the theater’s reopening has proven challenging, and Grant has rebooked acts as many as five times as guidelines and routes continue to shift. Though Broadway acts are beginning to tour again, such productions won’t hit tertiary markets like Billings until spring 2022.

Grant indicated the ABT will operate under CDC guidelines for gathering people together and will begin a series of small shows featuring local musicians to begin to bring the venue back up to its operating capacity.

“At this point, we need to test our lights, sounds, new points of sale and ticketing system,” said Grant. “When the virus hit, we were in the midst of a $13.6 million renovation.”

Plans are to reopen the theater to full capacity in September with a gala event featuring Kristen Chenoweth on Sept. 18—a date that has been rescheduled three times already.

For Gildehaus, playing live music for an audience was a jolt of energy and a reminder of all the reasons she’s a musician.

“I forgot what it felt like to interact with a live audience and see people experience the music in real time while you’re making it,” said Gildehaus, whose parents and fiancé were front and center for the performance and could easily qualify as her biggest fans. They spent the night singing along with every song, dancing, and cheering her on.

“My dad was telling me that he really enjoyed his pod, because he could dance and be with the people he came with very easily, and they had space to dance,” said Gildehaus.

As pleasing as it is to have a private pod, it’s not a money-maker, Lynch admitted.

“At these socially distanced shows, we are not making any money, but we are not losing money. It’s a wash. You have to start somewhere, and we needed to show that we are making forward progress.”

As a poet, writer, photographer, and educator, Anna Paige takes a multidisciplinary approach to the arts. She believes in the importance of collaboration and empowering community voice through writing, and in 2016 co-founded Billings Area Literary Arts, an organization dedicated to building and enhancing literary arts in and around Billings. Anna has served as a voice for artists, musicians, and the creative class since her first newspaper gig in 2004. Anna spent her angsty teen years in Wyoming. Her high school soundtrack contained Riot Grrrl anthems, Beastie Boy rhymes, and the sharp frustration of creating art and music in removed places.

 



 

The lungs Bill Thompson was born with told a gruesome, harrowing and unmistakable tale to Dr. Anthony Szema when he analyzed them and found the black spots, scarring, partially combusted jet fuel and metal inside.

The retired Army staff sergeant had suffered catastrophic lung damage from breathing incinerated waste burned in massive open-air pits and probably other irritants during his tour of duty in Iraq.

“There’s black spots that are burns, particles all over; there’s metal. It was all scarred,” said Szema, a pulmonologist and professor who studies toxic exposures and examined Thompson’s preserved lung tissue. “There was no gas exchange anywhere in that lung.”

Thompson is still alive, surviving on his second transplanted set of lungs. Yet the story burned into the veteran’s internal organs is not one that has been entirely convincing to the U.S. government.

The military has not linked the burn pits to illness. That means many who were exposed to burn pits and are sick do not qualify for benefits under any existing program.

Retirement and health benefits for members of the military depend on factors like length of service, active or reserve status, deployments to combat zones and whether the military considers specific injuries or illnesses to be service-related. Thompson has been able to get care through the Department of Veterans Affairs for his lung disease but has not been able to secure other benefits, like early retirement pay.

“I was denied my Army retirement because if it was not a combat action, then I don’t receive that retirement,” Thompson said at a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing last week on service members’ exposures to toxic substances.

Thompson is one of at least 3.5 million veterans since 2001 who have served in war zones where the U.S. military decided to dispose of its trash by burning it, according to VA estimates.

It’s not clear how many people within that population have gotten sick from exposure. Only a small fraction — 234,000 — have enrolled in the VA’s online burn pit registry. Veterans’ advocacy groups have said the majority of claims to the agency stemming from toxic exposures are denied, even as most former service members report contacts with toxins in their deployments.

Soldiers returning from tours in the global war on terror have reported debilitating illnesses almost from its beginning, but got little traction with the military. This year, though, the likelihood of congressional action is high, with Democrats expressing interest and a president who suspects burn pits are to blame for his son’s death.

President Joe Biden’s son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46. He had deployed to Iraq in two sites with burn pits — at Baghdad and Balad — around the same time Thompson was at Camp Striker, near the Baghdad airport.

“Because of exposure to burn pits — in my view, I can’t prove it yet — he came back with stage 4 glioblastoma,” Biden said in a 2019 speech.

In testimony at the March 10 hearing, Shane Liermann, who works for the group Disabled American Veterans, told the committee that 78% of burn pit claims are denied.

“Part of the problem is VA is not recognizing that exposure as being toxic exposures,” Liermann said.

Aleks Morosky, with the Wounded Warrior Project, said that in his group’s survey of 28,000 veterans last year, 71% said they had “definitely” been exposed to toxic substances or hazardous chemicals, and 18% said they had “probably” been exposed. Half of those people rated their health as poor or fair. Only about 16% of the service members who believed they had suffered exposure said they got treatment from the VA, and 11% said they were denied treatment.

Thompson, who is 49, said care for his lung disease is often slow and sometimes denied. It took the VA three years to approve an air purifier for his home to filter out allergens, and the VA refused to help pay for the removal of dust-trapping carpets, he said.

Thompson’s presence at the hearing, though, was not just meant to put the spotlight on the VA. The military’s entire approach to toxic exposure is a morass that leaves ill soldiers and veterans like Thompson trying to navigate a bureaucracy more labyrinthine than the Pentagon’s corridors.

After Thompson was shipped back to Fort Stewart in Georgia, his medical ordeal was at first addressed within the military system, including a year at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where doctors found his lungs filled with titanium, magnesium, iron and silica.

Yet he said he didn’t qualify for the Army’s traumatic-injury insurance program, which might have helped him pay to retrofit his home in West Virginia. And he can’t get his military retirement pay until he’s 60.

“I may not live to be age 60. I turn 50 this year,” Thompson said.

Illustrating the problem, several officials at the hearing with the Department of Defense, the Army and the National Guard were unable to explain why Thompson — with 23 years of service between the Guard and Army — might have such a hard time qualifying for retirement benefits when the evidence of his lungs and the findings of the Army’s own doctors are so vivid and extreme.

For advocates who have been working on the problem for decades, it reminds them all too vividly of Agent Orange, which the military is still coming to grips with.

“It’s already been, since the first Persian Gulf [War] — we’re talking 30 years — and since burn pits were again active, since 2001,” said Liermann. “We’re way behind the curve here.”

Although Congress has done relatively little to deal with burn pits, many members seem to at least be thinking along the same lines. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs hearing promised to be something of a kickoff to a year when lawmakers are poised to offer a slew of bills designed to confront the military’s inability to care for service members poisoned during their deployments.

“Make no mistake about it,” said the committee chairman, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “We hold these hearings for two reasons: to gather information for the committee members and to help educate the VA that they might take action before Congress does.”

Republicans have also shown growing interest in the problem, offering targeted bills to ensure a handful of toxin-related diseases are covered by the VA.

At the hearing, conservative freshman Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) seemed especially moved.

“We got to do a better job of taking care of our young people,” Tuberville said. “If we’re going to go to war, we got to understand we got to pay the price for it on both ends.”

There is also likely to be high-profile support and attention when revised legislation starts rolling out this spring.

The broadest bill likely to be offered was first introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in the Senate and Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) in the House in late 2019, with a boost from former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and a cadre of 9/11 responders who are turning their attention to toxic exposures.

Indeed, Ruiz and Gillibrand’s legislation is modeled in part on the 9/11 health act that passed in 2015. The burn pit bill would remove the burden of proving a service-related connection.

It would vastly simplify the lives of people like Thompson.

“I am a warrior of the United States of America. I gave my lungs for my country,” Thompson said.

He was cut off before he could finish, but his prepared remarks concluded, “Hopefully, after hearing my story, it will bring awareness for not only me but others who are battling the same or similar injuries related to burn pit exposures from Iraq or Afghanistan.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

 

The Republican majority in the Montana House advanced the main state budget bill Monday after fending off Democrats’ push for additional funds for social service programs.

by Eric Dietrich03.22.2021
MontanaFreePress.org

HELENA — The state’s two-year budget bill passed its initial vote in the Montana House along party lines Monday, advancing with support from a unified Republican majority and opposition from Democrats frustrated by health and human services spending cuts.

House Bill 2, which totals approximately $12.6 billion, still faces a final vote in the House before being sent to the Senate for another round of review.

“This is a very solid and well-thought-out bill for this point in time,” said House Appropriations Committee Chair Llew Jones, R-Conrad. “It needs to continue on its journey.”

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the shape we needed it to be able to support it today,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena.

As it stands, the legislative budget comes in slightly thinner than the spending proposal released by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte in January. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services specifically is facing a budget that’s approximately $150 million below the governor’s initial request — essentially the same funding level it received in the last two-year cycle without adjustment for inflation or the state’s growing population.

During the chamber’s day-long debate, Democrats brought a series of amendments looking to pull the DPHHS budget closer to the governor’s proposal, all of which were rebuffed by Republicans on nearly party-line votes. If successful, the amendments would have restored funding for school-based mental health counselors, a federally funded refugee resettlement initiative, and a suicide prevention effort, among other social service programs. Democratic aides said their amendments totaled about $23 million in General Fund spending.

Rep. Matt Regier of Kalispell, the Republican lead on the health section of the budget, said lawmakers are working on finding an alternative funding source for the school counseling program, which previously saw a greater share of its cost covered by federal dollars.

Republicans did add some additional spending of their own, including approximately $150,000 a year to fund a natural resources attorney in the state Department of Justice. That position, said Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, would help the state pursue litigation with the Biden administration over the Keystone XL pipeline and other natural resource issues.

Republicans also passed a budget amendment to give the state university system $1 million to respond to the constitutional carry bill Gianforte signed into law in February, which restricts higher education officials’ ability to limit firearms on campuses.

That money could be spent on offering firearms training on campuses, adding gun safes to campus dorms and installing metal detectors for athletic events where guns can still be barred. However, the budget amendment included language that would have the university system forfeit the allocation if the state Board of Regents chooses to challenge the law in court.

Speaker of the House Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, applauded the budget bill’s passage Monday.

“I am proud of the Montana House’s work to create a conservative state budget,” he said in a statement. “House Bill 2 provides the state with a responsible budget that adequately funds state services and gives Gov. Gianforte the tools he needs to continue making state government more efficient.