Montana Lawmakers Can’t Even Agree on Amount of Money

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree on how much money the state will have for its budget, setting up far bigger battles when lawmakers actually start deciding how to spend it.

The House Taxation Committee deadlocked on party-line votes several times Thursday as they argued over the state’s revenue picture.

Republicans want to use the most recent prediction worked up by legislative staffers — which shows Montana will have about $85 million less than Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s budget estimate.

Democrats want to stick with Schweitzer’s figure, already revised downward once because of the recession.

Republicans said they thought they had an agreement with Democrats on the lower amount, and were surprised to see the deadlocked 10-10 votes on House Joint Resolution 2.

“We were totally stonewalled this morning. The other sides just set their heels in,” said Rep. Bob Lake, R-Hamilton.

The resolution pegging a figure on state tax collections occasionally becomes a political football. Republicans, in general, would like to see a lower figure as a way to help force the Legislature to spend less. Democrats, in general, prefer a higher estimate that could allow for more spending.

The Legislature is bound constitutionally to a balanced budget.

Democrats said they should stick with the governor’s number, released in December with the downward revisions in his spending plan, until it becomes clearer that tax collections will indeed be dropping further.

Lake said Republican leaders felt like Democrats had failed to deliver on an agreement to go with Legislative Fiscal Division estimates from January.

“It puts some real doubt as to whether you can have trust going forward,” said Lake, who chairs the tax committee. “The fact is we had an understanding.”

House Speaker Bob Bergren, the Democrat overseeing a 50-50 split in the chamber, said there was no agreement on the lower figure. In fact, he said he did not even agree to a vote this week on the measure.

“I was kind of disappointed myself,” Bergren said. “I was surprised they wanted to do that.”

Bergren said Democrats are not opposed to the lower number. But he said legislative staffers next week will release another two-year prediction on tax collections, and Bergren wants to wait to see it.

Bergren said that if no agreement can be reached on a revised prediction, the figure will revert to a pre-recession estimate about $220 million higher than what the Republicans want.

But he said there is almost two months to sort out revenue predictions and spending plans.

“We are not at critical mass. There is plenty of time to turn up the volume on this,” Bergren said.

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