Bill Calls for Montana Stimulus Oversight

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – State Senate President Bob Story proposed a bill Wednesday calling for a bipartisan commission of legislators and citizens to watch over how federal stimulus dollars are spent in Montana.

The amount of money coming to Montana from the stimulus package remains unknown, but state leaders expect it to be in the hundreds of millions.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before in the state, and hopefully we’ll never see anything like this again, but there’s almost as much money in the stimulus package as there is in a full year of our budget,” said Story, R-Park City.

The new commission would consist of 13 members drawn from the Legislature, the executive branch and the public. It would not have the authority to distribute funds, but its members would meet to guarantee stimulus funding is being used properly.

“All we’re trying to do here is provide a steady hand during these tough times to make sure we do the right things,” said Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo.

Lawmakers do not know when stimulus money will be released to individual states, but the total spending package is now expected to be about $790 billion.

“We don’t know the shape of it yet. We don’t know the details, but we do know that a significant amount of money is targeted to come to Montana,” Story said.

Democrats oppose forming any new committees to oversee stimulus spending. Instead, they would like to see the existing legislative Finance Committee take on that role.

“It seems to me that giving any kind of oversight authority to people who are not elected is a mistake,” said Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula.

Four members of the public would have seats on the Republican’s proposed commission. They would be appointed by legislative leadership, and could include representatives from local government or school districts.

Williams said it would be wrong to take appropriation authority out of the Legislature. She has asked Legislative Services to draft a competing bill that affirms legislators have a constitutional obligation to handle appropriations.

The governor’s office said it has not had time to thoroughly review the Republican bill, but it does not want any new layers to stall stimulus spending.

“Anything that could potentially slow down getting money on the ground and people to work is not a good course of action,” said Sarah Elliott, spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. “We tend to think more accountability and less bureaucracy is a more appropriate course of action.”

Although Montana is not confronted with the budget deficits many states are facing, declining revenue estimates have left lawmakers with an uncertain picture of resources.

“We believe that this is a unique circumstance, a unique opportunity for the state and we should have a specific group of people in charge of oversight once the money is appropriated,” Story said.

The bill has been drafted but not introduced and does not yet have a number.