Schweitzer: Lawmakers Could Have Little Say on Stimulus

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer told state legislative leaders Thursday that Congress will likely give them little say in how federal stimulus money is spent, urging them to keep working on their normal budget process.

The governor, meeting with Republican Senate President Bob Story and Democratic House Speaker Bob Bergren, said any federal stimulus package will be allocated very specifically. Schweitzer said details of pending federal plans are still up in the air, but he is certain it will come from Washington D.C. already earmarked.

“Anybody that thinks the money is going to come to us as some kind of block grant is smoking pine cones,” Schweitzer said.

Lawmakers said Thursday that they want to make sure the federal money is spent where it should be.

Some Republicans are pitching plans for an oversight committee that could help steer the money, but Democrats are pushing back against the formation of any new committees.

Many lawmakers have been wondering if they should hold off on spending plans until the federal stimulus package is finalized.

The chairmen of the legislative budgeting committees, holding a bipartisan news conference Thursday, said they plan to move forward with the appropriations process. The lawmakers said they don’t know what restrictions will be placed on new federal money.

“Until they finalize it, it is virtually indeterminable as to what strings will be placed on it,” said Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter.

Republicans said they are delaying initial spending decisions in subcommittees until they get a clearer snapshot in early February on state revenues, not because of pending federal stimulus. The lawmakers worry the recession could hurt tax collections more than currently anticipated.

“It’s a whole lot easier to put things into (the budget) in March than take them out in April,” Story said in the meeting with Schweitzer.

House Minority Leader Scott Sales said he thinks the federal stimulus spending is a bad idea for the nation and state, due to the increased debt and other issues. But he said there is no stopping the cash infusion, so he will work with other legislators to make sure it is spent most effectively.

“You have to be realistic, it’s going to happen,” he said.

Schweitzer said he expects new federal money will be funneled through existing programs, such as unemployment insurance and Medicaid. Other dollars will be spent on infrastructure, such as improving the energy efficiency of schools, with very specific formulas.

Schweitzer said he is confident that much of it will go toward making government buildings more energy efficient. The governor said audits have already been conducted in Montana to identify those projects.

He said spending $50 million on school and government building efficiency would save millions on future energy bills, while creating jobs now.