Schweitzer Administration Calls Budget, Stimulus Plan ‘Unacceptable’

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Montana Senate advanced a Republican-backed plan for spending of federal stimulus money Tuesday, even as the governor’s office called it and the main budget bill “unacceptable.”

The governor’s budget director upped the ante in the budget showdown developing between Republicans and Democrats, suggesting the whole package of budget bills might not get the governor’s signature.

On Tuesday, the Senate gave initial approval to House Bill 645, the stimulus plan, and was preparing to vote on House Bill 676, which makes the needed changes in law to implement the main budget, which cleared the Senate last week.

The biggest sticking points for the administration, and most Democrats, are a GOP plan to reduce the voter-approved expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, and another strategy to shift base education funding to the federal stimulus bill.

House Bill 645 spends about $876 million in federal money, but most of it was already targeted specifically by Congress, such as more than $200 million for roads and bridges. State lawmakers had leeway with about a quarter of it.

Republicans recognized that they won’t have the final say, suggesting they have room to negotiate as the measure heads to a conference committee with a House split 50-50 between the parties.

“Is the bill perfect? No. Will there be other changes along the way? Of course there will be, we all know that. That is part of the process,” Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, told his colleagues. “But it is our role as a state Senate to move this bill forward.”

Many Democrats voted against it, but a few supported the measure. A few Republicans voted against it, arguing the state should refuse federal money on principal because it is causing an increase in the national debt. The measure was approved 27-23.

The chamber also advanced House Bill 676 on a 26-14 vote, with Democrats failing on a last ditch effort to restore the statutory language on CHIP funding that voters approved in November. Republicans countered that their plan still expands CHIP enrollment, just not as much as sought in Initiative 155.

Negotiations with the House could start later this week, with the Legislature scheduled to adjourn before the end of the month.

“Those bills are unacceptable to us,” Budget Director David Ewer told a meeting of Senate Democrats. “I can say this: The governor is not going to sign House Bill 645 in its current form.”

But he stopped short of saying Gov. Brian Schweitzer would veto any measures. A bill becomes law without the governor’s signature after 10 days if he refuses to sign it.

Still, Ewer suggested the showdown might not be settled in the 90 days the Legislature is constitutionally granted to draft a budget. In 2007, lawmakers adjourned without a budget and the governor called them back in May for a special session.

“We either get it right now, we get it right in a conference committee, or we get it right in a special session,” Ewer said.

Legislative Fiscal Division analysis shows Montana will get a total of about $1.7 billion in impact from the federal stimulus actions. On top of money in House Bill 645, the state gets $207 million in extra unemployment insurance money and residents get an estimated $576 million in federal tax cuts.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.