Schweitzer Irked by “Stalled” State Budget

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer, not pleased with what he described as Republican-led stalling on budget work, said Friday he is no longer going to stand back out of the legislative process.

“I was in 2-wheel drive, and now I have put it in 4-wheel drive,” Schweitzer said. “I am going to use the strength of the 4-wheel drive I have in the governor’s office to move things forward.”

But even Democrats disagreed with Schweitzer’s characterization and defended a legislative decision to wait a few weeks on initial spending decisions until revenue projections become clearer.

The top Republican in the Legislature, Senate President Bob Story, said he thought the governor was overreacting.

Schweitzer’s announcement that he will get more involved in the Legislature came a day after he quizzed legislative leadership about why appropriations subcommittees are delaying votes that would start moving the budget forward. The governor said he was not satisfied with Story’s response that lawmakers want to first see fresher revenue projections.

New revenue estimates came in Friday afternoon showing projected state revenue will be $85 million less than thought just a month ago, and came with a warning it could drop further.

The governor said such revisions shouldn’t slow things down, pointing out he originally offered a budget proposal with nearly $200 million in a rainy day fund in order to accommodate ups and downs in revenue projections. He said the committees need to keep going because lawmakers would still have time later to make further adjustments if they want.

The governor compared lawmakers to cattle milling in front of an open gate.

“When I hear we are going to stall the process, and I hear things that are an irrational basis for why we are stalling, it seems to me we need to get this thing moving along again,” Schweitzer said. “Maybe I’m just giving it a little whistle — get things moving.”

Democratic House Speaker Bob Bergren, leading a 50-50 split in the chamber, said lawmakers will continue a “calm, cool and in control” approach to the budget. He called the governor’s approach “unfortunate.”

“I want to do it once, I want to do it right,” Bergren said. “I think we are fine. I just think we don’t need to get into too big a hurry.”

Before the legislative session, Schweitzer said he was going to stay out of the legislative process and let the lawmakers return a budget to him for his signature. But the governor said he has now decided to reach out to rank-and-file Republicans to see if he can help them move things along.

Story, who leads a 27-23 Republican majority in the Senate, said he wasn’t offended by the governor openly stating he plans to bypass GOP leadership.

But Story said a two week delay on budget work at this point in the 90-day session is not consequential, and said he thought the governor was overreacting.

“That’s part of his style. He’s a flamboyant guy,” Story said. “That’s part of his leadership: bold rhetoric.”

The top Republican in the Legislature said he still would like to work with the governor directly on a variety of issues. Schweitzer said he would also continue to meet with Story.

House Republican leaders say they’ll ask Schweitzer to attend regular meetings with them in hopes of starting a “productive dialogue.”

House Republican Floor Leader Scott Mendenhall, R-Clancy, said Schweitzer was just disrupting what leaders think has so far been one of the most bipartisan Legislatures in recent memory.

“I guess it’s a good thing the governor’s back from Washington D.C. and wants to help,” Mendenhall said. “I hope he rolls up his sleeves and works with us.”