HELENA – A deal to change the governor’s plan for spending federal stimulus money cruised through a Montana House committee Tuesday.
The House Appropriations Committee moved around about $75 million of the roughly $800 million in federal stimulus being funneled through Montana. The state has spending discretion on about a third of the money, while the rest was specifically targeted by Congress to such areas as highways and bridges.
The stimulus plan, House Bill 645, is expected to hit the House floor on Thursday.
The panel was working off a proposal pitched by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. The biggest change from Schweitzer’s proposal came in a move to cancel $40 million to shore up the teacher’s pension system.
Money instead will be spent by sending about $23 million to local cities, towns and tribal governments for their own infrastructure projects.
The House panel also targeted an extra $15 million more for K-12 schools, an extra $8 million — for a total of $18 million — to ensure a college tuition freeze, and several other smaller initiatives.
“I believe that with minimal exception that we are on the same page and that we would like to move forward as a body on this bill,” said committee Chairman Jon Sesso, D-Butte.
Sesso said he spent several days bouncing ideas off individual committee members, holding informal discussions about what people could accept. The panel spent less than an hour voting on the amendments to the bill and voted 18-2 to endorse it.
The pattern follows a similar path to the main spending plan, which cruised the committee with an abnormally brief discussion and friendly vote for an appropriations measure. The committee, like the full House, is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.
Vice chairman Walter McNutt, R-Sydney, said the committee is doing a good job of working together.
“It was just a collaborative process that worked better than any I’ve seen,” said the veteran lawmaker.
Sesso said lawmakers are proving they can make tough decisions without acrimony.
The Democrat said the bill only changes a small part of what the governor handed down.
“We endorsed the lion’s share of it and made a couple of changes we think the people of Montana would want,” Sesso said.
Sesso said he believes in the stimulus plan, and thinks they will provide immediate benefits to communities and jobs in a way that the various Wall Street bailouts will not.
“Time will tell us that this investment is going to make a difference for Montana,” Sesso said.
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