HELENA – Lawmakers got their first look Wednesday at the governor’s plan for Montana’s federal stimulus money and were told they will have discretion with more than a third of it.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s budget director pitched the administration’s plan for $800 million in federal money being funneled through the state and the roughly $300 million of it the state can play with.
Budget Director Ewer said the larger portion is earmarked for 55 specific uses, the biggest part of that going to transportation projects like road construction.
The administration wants to use more than half the discretionary money on more infrastructure. The rest would go to help with the increasing Medicaid caseload, shore up the teachers’ retirement fund, freeze college tuition and other areas.
Ewer said the administration will ask colleges to hold a tuition freeze in place in exchange for $10 million, far less than given the university system two years ago for the same purpose. He said Montana families are making do with tighter budgets, and so should the colleges.
“I anticipate that you may well hear representatives from higher education bring data to you saying that this amount may be insufficient,” Ewer said. “Our sense is that we believe that higher education can hold the line.”
Ewer said the administration is most focused on making sure that the stimulus bill, House Bill 645, and the main budget plan, House Bill 2, ensure the state has extra reserves of $250 million to deal with the recession. It also has placed a high priority on putting more money in Medicaid and extra money into K-12 schools.
Some pieces, such as a plan to pore more than $40 million into the teachers’ retirement system, are more likely to be changed by lawmakers who may prefer more projects in the state.
“How does that qualify as stimulus?” Rep. Peggy Morgan, R-Billings, quizzed Ewer.
Ewer said the administration believes the money would help forestall a future tax increase to make the fund whole.
“We understand that we should give you a suggested road map, but you are the final deciders on what that road map is,” Ewer said.
Legislative subcommittee will hold formal hearings on different pieces of the plan Thursday, and then make changes on Friday. The full House Appropriations Panel is expected to take action on the bill next week.
Schweitzer says he wants a bill done by April 3 if he is to sign a certification letter to the federal government by that day promising the state will use the money as congress expected. Another option calls for the Legislature itself to jointly sign that certification.
Lawmakers have said they will move as quickly as they can while still making sure the money is spent appropriately.
“It is for the most part designed to put money on the street and in the communities to get infrastructure built and people back to work,” said Rep. Jon Sesso, the Butte Democrat in charge of the House Appropriations Committee. “A lot of people in this state are hurting and we have to do what we can to help them.”
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