Montana Lawmakers No Closer on Budget Deal

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Lawmakers entering the final week of the 2009 legislative session were no closer Monday to agreeing on a state budget or a federal stimulus spending plan, although both sides say they hope to start talking in earnest about a compromise on Tuesday.

Democrats and Republicans hashing out very different spending plans that emerged from the House and Senate spent Monday focused on technical amendments to the main spending bill, House Bill 2. The lawmakers must also finalize the spending plan for federal stimulus money, House bill 645.

At the same time, negotiations on the session’s big tax bill loom. The House on Monday rejected the Senate plan for mitigating the tax effect of property value increases, setting up a conference committee to deal with that issue.

Lawmakers hope to wrap up their work before week’s end, but have until next Monday before they reach their 90th legislative day and must adjourn. Senate Republicans’ reduction in the voter-approved expansion of children’s health insurance is among the major sticking points in budget talks.

Leading House Democrat Jon Sesso of Butte said the looming deadline will soon force compromise. At this point, he said, the House is standing by its plan and resisting the Senate strategy to shift base education funding over to the one-time federal stimulus money.

“I think necessity is the mother of invention, and I think it is also the mother of compromise,” Sesso said.

Some lawmakers worry a stalemate could lead to a special session like the one in 2007, when the Legislature failed amid caustic partisanship to meet its sole constitutional duty of adopting a state budget within the 90 days it is given to do so. But leaders say they don’t envision that happening again.

Senate Republican appropriations leader Keith Bales of Otter said conversation on Tuesday morning should turn to big issues. Bales said the House side of the conference committee has needed time to fully understand the Senate changes to the bills.

“I think we will be able to come up with something,” Bales said. “I am cautiously hopeful.”

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