Partisan Budget Differences Surface in Montana Senate

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Partisan budget differences surfaced Thursday in the Montana Senate, where Republicans want to chop $100 million from the House version of the spending plan and Democrats want to keep it largely intact.

The Senate Finance and Claims Committee started looking at the two-year budget bill of $8.1 billion that has already cleared a House split 50-50 between the parties. The panel decided to make no decisions Thursday on House Bill 2, as was originally planned, opting to take another crack at the issue Friday.

Republicans who control the Senate said Thursday the budget needs to be reduced further to prepare for a bad economy and decreased tax collections. They argue it spends about $100 million more than is projected to come in over the budget period and can only be considered balanced because the state has enough money currently in the bank to cover the predicted shortfall.

Democrats argued that cuts should be far less than $100 million, saying government services are going to be needed as unemployment rises. They point out that the state is still predicted to have $200 million or more in the bank at the end of the two-year budget period.

The Democrats also said that money can be taken from the “stabilization” portion of the $880 million in federal stimulus money to bolster the main state budget and avoid cuts. The same panel is scheduled to look at that money after it finishes work on the main spending plan.

“It’s about as deep a philosophical split as you are ever going to see,” said Sen. Dave Lewis, a Helena Republican and former state budget director. “I think our course is clear. We just have to make the tough choices.”

Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter, said he does not want to push a GOP plan through without some support from Democrats. But he is intent on cutting spending, pointing to such ideas as a further reduction in state employees and a plan to roll back the voter-approved initiative to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Bales recognized there did not appear to be much agreement Thursday.

“I think there are some of us that feel we do need to make cuts, and obviously there are those of us on the committee that don’t think we need any cuts,” Bales said. “I think we need to get more firm numbers, and I think we need a little more time to discuss some of the different ideas.”

Democrats said that Bales probably needs their votes on the Senate floor because he doesn’t have enough Republican votes to get the job done. The GOP controls the Senate 27-23.

They also argued there is nothing that requires “structural balance,” the notion that inside of any given budget year that revenues at least are equal to expenditures.

“While I agree we need to work toward being a little more structurally balanced, I don’t think we have the view that we have to have the structural balance that Sen. Bales does,” said Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula. “We might have to accept a little structural imbalance here.”

Sen. Steve Gallus, D-Butte, said that senators should give a lot of deference to the House spending plan because it was a carefully coordinated compromise in a chamber split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

“My biggest concern is that the Senate is going to blow it up and start over,” he said. “I hope we don’t blow it up just because we can.”

The measure from the House spends a total of $8.1 billion over the next two years, including $3.3 billion in state tax money. Spending goes up $141 million over the last two-year budget period. As usual, education takes up about half the spending, with human services and corrections taking up the bulk of the rest.

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