Budget Stalemate Looms

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he thinks lawmakers can find their way out of a growing budget stalemate by Monday’s deadline, but says he has no problem waiting and calling a special session if that’s what it takes.

“I am going to pick the hottest five days in June,” Schweitzer said, adding energy saving measures will restrict air conditioning use. “The temperature inside will be about 90 degrees. That will speed things along.”

Lawmakers didn’t even talk about the core issues on Tuesday, and were struggling to avoid the meltdown of 2007 when they were unable to agree to spending plan in the 90 days given them to do so.

Still, Senate Republican appropriations leader Keith Bales of Otter said it’s going to be done on time.

“We’re not going to have a special session,” Bales said in an interview. “I’m very hopeful we will come up with a solution that the majority of the Senate and the House will find acceptable.”

The joint panels charged with bridging the huge gulf on children’s health insurance and education met briefly in the morning to deal with a few technical amendments and then adjourned for the day. Side meetings were taking place between key negotiators.

One Democratic Senate member of the conference committee told rank-and-file lawmakers with little to do until a deal is reached that they might as well go golfing on Wednesday because he sees no end in sight.

“I don’t think there is going to be much activity (on Wednesday),” Sen. Jim Keane of Butte told fellow Democrats in a meeting. “To me, we are not up against the final time frame yet, but we are getting close.”

The conference committee of Republicans and Democrats charged with resolving different House and Senate budget plans has to achieve a compromise and get it approved in both chambers by Monday, the last legislative day.

Just as in 2007, extra money is causing the problem. But unlike the record surplus from two years ago, it’s an infusion of more than $800 million in federal stimulus money causing the arguments.

This time around lacks the caustic partisanship of 2007’s historic failure, and instead features principled, ideological stands that are proving equally as unyielding.

“Our view of the world as Republicans is far different than the Democrats,” said Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena, a veteran lawmaker and former state budget director. “I don’t know how to reconcile that.”

Republicans want less spending, while Democrats are adamantly opposed to raiding the special Children’s Health Insurance Program that voters just approved last fall with Initiative 155. And Democrats, including Schweitzer, don’t like the GOP plan to shift education funding increases over to one-time federal stimulus money without a guarantee the money will be there for the next budget period.

The Senate traditionally has the upper hand on budget debates. It has in the past simply refused House changes and adjourned on the last day, forcing the House to concede.

But this time around, Schweitzer has threatened not to sign the Senate plan as it stands. If the Senate tries to force its hand, Schweitzer could call them back into special session.

Schweitzer said Tuesday that he doesn’t think that will be necessary, because he believes Senate President Bob Story will want to end his tenure on a high note rather than mired in a special session.

“I think they can get it done this time,” Schweitzer said.

The governor’s offering for a final budget deal sounds a lot like the bipartisan House plan that Senate Republicans roundly rejected, causing problems for Republicans who want to shave spending.

Governors typically have more leverage in special sessions. They can call it when they want — often after votes are lined up on the issues in play — and can restrict the session to certain items.

But Lewis said Senate Republicans are experienced lawmakers who won’t fold under the pressure.

“We’re not going to be intimidated,” Lewis said. “We are generally older people and this is not our first rodeo.”

Lewis doesn’t see how a compromise can be reached by Monday.

“I have my doubts we will be done,” he said.

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