HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer outlined his plan Friday for $800 million in federal stimulus money, focusing discretionary money to help the flagging wood products industry, freeze college tuition and shore up the teacher pension system.
And the governor said he expects state lawmakers to finalize budget work on the federal money within 22 days, far quicker than many originally envisioned.
The biggest pieces of the stimulus spending would go — as expected by the federal stimulus plan — to highway and road construction.
With smaller portions of money where the state is given leeway, Schweitzer is proposing $10 million to retool the wood industry to make use of dead and dying trees. Schweitzer said the state’s remaining 32 wood mills need to be saved, and that unemployment in that area continues to plague the state.
“This is there we are having problems. It’s the timber industry more than anything,” Schweitzer said.
The governor said the industry is too important to see it completely shuttered as has happened in other states.
Schweitzer is also pitching $42 million to freeze public college and university tuition, money he said will only go to the Board of Regents if they agree to hold tuition steady. The governor said the recession and dropping prices require colleges to freeze tuition.
“A lot of businesses in Montana are expected now to deliver the same product with fewer resources,” Schweitzer said. “If families in Montana aren’t being paid more these days, we don’t think it’s fair to charge them more for higher education.”
The governor also wants some of the federal money to shore up a financially troubled state pension system. He argued that it is necessary to forestall future tax increases to pay for the retirement system.
Schweitzer said he expects the Legislature will put its own ideas on the plan. But he said he needs it done by April 3 because that’s when he has to certify to the federal government that the state will lawfully spend the money.
The House Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said his panel will take up the bill next week since it finished with the state’s main budget bill, known as House Bill 2, on Friday. The stimulus plan will be on the House floor by March 17 and over to the Senate shortly later, Sesso said.
“If the federal government can get it done in 45 days, we can get it done in 22 days,” Sesso said.
Republicans who control the Senate were not at Schweitzer’s news conference on his proposal.
They were less friendly to the April 3 deadline.
Senate president Bob Story said that he wants to make sure the federal plan requires finished work by that date. The Park City Republican said it’s important the Legislature take sufficient time so that it doesn’t make any mistakes with the money.
Story also continues to push an oversight panel for spending of the money, an idea resisted by Democrats who say it would be usurping the authority of the Legislature, which frequently adopts larger spending budgets than found in the stimulus plan.
Story said he was skeptical of the plan to spend more than $40 million on the pension system, saying it’s not enough to fix the problem.
“It might be better spent on something of a concrete nature, infrastructure or something,” Story said.
He was less critical of the plan to use about the same amount to freeze college tuition, but said he wants to review the details.
House Republican Floor Leader Scott Mendenhall of Clancy, who manages a sawmill, was skeptical that Schweitzer’s $10 million for the wood products industry would be enough to make a difference.
“I appreciate the gesture, don’t get me wrong, but it’s only that,” he said. “But I do appreciate the governor recognizing the problem here.”
House Speaker Bob Bergren, D-Havre, said he expects both sides to get along and meet the April 3 deadline, and raised the specter of the historic partisan gridlock of two years ago when the Legislature failed to reach a budget deal in the time allotted to do so.
“I don’t think there will be any chicanery like we saw in 2007,” Bergren said.
Schweitzer did not say he would reject the federal money, or fail to certify the usage of the funds, if he doesn’t have a stimulus spending bill by that date.
“I don’t know what I will do,” Schweitzer said.
The governor said it doesn’t make sense to test the deadline.
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