Try, try, try again

The Republican-controlled Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services voted late in the day on Feb. 22 to remove $4.6 million of federal Title X funding from the state budget. The subcommittee's decision was unsurprising. Title X funds support services like mammograms, cervical cancer screenings and birth control at family planning clinics across the state. Federal law prohibits the funds from supporting abortion services, but because some of the clinics, like Planned Parenthood, also offer abortions, many Republican lawmakers are suspicious of what the funds really pay for.

"I just want it to be clear that we're not funding things we find objectionable," says Sen. Jason Priest, R-Red Lodge, who voted to remove the funding.

Though the subcommittee's vote was unremarkable, the events that led to it may signal the mood of House and Senate budget talks to come.

Earlier on Feb. 22, the subcommittee, which is composed of four Republicans and two Democrats, voted 5-1 to keep Title X funding in the budget. But after the committee had closed, Rep. Dave Hagstrom, R-Billings, who had voted proxy for Priest, said he hadn't understood what they were voting for.

"We'd been voting all day long against federal funding," he says. "But it was one of those rare votes where 'yes' means 'no' and 'no' means 'yes.' I voted wrong."

The subcommittee voted again, and still the motion to remove the funding failed in a 3-3 tie. A lone Republican, Sen. Roger Webb of Billings, who did not return phone calls for this story, sided with the Democrats.

The Republicans were again unsatisfied with the outcome. "I believe the chairman of the committee [Rep. Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton] encountered some resistance from the House about the Title X money still being in there," says Priest. Though Ehli denies any such pressure, he called the committee back to a meeting at 4 p.m. to reconsider the vote.

Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Butte, objected. "I think it's very nice that we can just willy-nilly within hours decide to change our votes on things," he told the committee. "If the tone for this legislature takes a drastic change, I think we can point to this moment as possibly the start to a very different feeling as to how this budget is going to move forward in the House."

Budget negotiations began this week.

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