Senate Leaders Pick Battles, but Call for Caution

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Top Senate leaders are preparing to battle over children’s health insurance and energy development, even as they promise bipartisanship and a careful meshing of stimulus and state budget funds during the session’s second half.

Lawmakers from both parties announced their priorities going forward Thursday, when they began a short mid-session break.

While Senate Republicans say declining revenue estimates warrant tough budget choices, Democratic leaders are gearing up to fight for expanding children’s health care, even if it means dipping into the governor’s requested $200 million in rainy day funds. Republicans argue expanding the program would require cuts in programs for education or elderly care.

“I think it’s an insult to the people of Montana when they don’t support a program voted for by 70 percent of Montanans,” Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, said.

In November, voters overwhelmingly approved a $35 million expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which receives funding from both the state and federal governments.

For their part, Republicans plan to charge forward with looser permitting standards for energy projects, a change they argue will create jobs for unemployed Montanans and promote energy independence.

“We’ve advanced the bills that we needed to move out of the Senate and over to the House and that will help the state of Montana develop its natural resources,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo.

The package of Republican bills limiting permit appeals and environmental reviews have gathered some support from both sides of the aisle, although Senate Democrats say they hope to stall their passage.

Despite these disagreements, leaders from both parties heralded the bipartisan tone set during the session’s first half. They also emphasized the need for caution in what they described as an unprecedented effort to distribute $626 million in federal stimulus funding, which will be used for infrastructure projects and shoring up programs, such as Medicare.

“The traditional way of investing in ongoing programs with one-time money is going to take some real careful analysis so it doesn’t get us into trouble in the long term,” said Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman.

Other shared priorities include softening the brunt of tax increases triggered by property tax reappraisals and reducing the business equipment tax — although disagreements are likely over the amount of decrease.

“We have a real concern that homes will be overvalued,” said Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City. Story said reappraisals kicked in right before the economic downturn, creating projected tax increases that no longer coincide with home values.

During the second half of the legislative session, the focus is always on balancing the budget, a requirement of the Montana Constitution. This year lawmakers are confronted with a shifting baseline brought on by dwindling revenue estimates and the promise of stimulus funds, which could be delivered as soon as next month.

Legislators have already tussled over how to oversee the federal funds, with Republicans calling for a special commission of citizens and lawmakers that Democrats oppose.

“I feel very strongly that the oversight for that should be the Legislature, that the interim Finance Committee is totally equipped for that,” Williams said.

The recession has fed the sense of urgency over balancing the budget, and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer is prodding lawmakers to make quick work of distributing stimulus funds.

But legislative leaders on both sides say they will proceed at their own pace.

“If we did have a check in the bank tomorrow in Montana, we wouldn’t be moving any dirt by Friday with it,” Story said.

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