Montana House Withdraws from Talks on Key Bill

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The House upped the ante in the deepening budget stalemate Thursday and withdrew from talks over one key bill — sparking the first real conversation about the core issues in a week of stalled talks.

House Democrats, with the help of one Republican vote, moved on the House floor to disband the conference committee that was supposed to be talking about a bill that most notably guts the voter-approved expansion of children’s health insurance. The panel had done almost no talking since its first meeting last week.

House Speaker Bob Bergren, a Havre Democrat overseeing a 50-50 House, said says he wants to see progress in talks with the Senate on the main budget and the federal stimulus plan before he continues talking about the CHIP legal changes showdown.

Republicans said the move is just gamesmanship and may not have much impact on the final outcome — which still needs to be negotiated between very different ideological stands each side is taking. But publicly they expressed disappointment.

“I would hope that we can go forward,” Sen. Keith Bales, the leading Republican negotiator on budget talks, said in a meeting of negotiators. “I would hope the House can reconsider what it’s done.”

The Senate, controlled by Republicans, wants to undo much of the Initiative 155 CHIP expansion, shift education spending increases over to one-time federal money and make other cuts to the House spending plan.

All of the moves are aimed at cutting spending in order to bolster reserves so the state is prepared for further downturns in tax collections. At the same time, the Republicans say reduced spending puts the state in better shape for the next two-year budget period.

“More importantly, I think we are facing a situation this biennium where if we are not very fiscally conservative in crafting this budget we may very well be back here in a year or less trying to cut things,” Bales said.

Democrats argue it is ridiculous to gut a voter-approved initiative, and to tinker with education increases, just to increase reserves.

The House move dealt with House Bill 676, which makes a number of changes in law to go along with the spending bill, House Bill 2. Democrats point out that I-155 passed by voters last fall stays intact and in law without the Senate changes in HB676.

At the same time, though, House Bill 2 controls the flow of money and as it currently stands amended by the Senate does not fund CHIP at the 250 percent of poverty level outlined in I-155.

The conference committees talking jointly about HB2 and House Bill 645, the federal stimulus spending plan, met Thursday and openly talked about the key issues for the first time.

“Our goal, and I think everyone shares the goal, is that we want to resolve the budget and put a reasonable and prudent plan in place by the weekend,” said leading Democratic negotiator Jon Sesso of Butte. “I think we can move forward. I think we can get this job done with an eye toward the concerns of the future.”

Generally, lawmakers expressed optimism at reaching a deal perhaps by Friday and recessing over the weekend for staffers to write it up. That would leave Monday and Tuesday — the last two legislative days — to formalize it on the House and Senate floors.

If lawmakers fail, it will be the second session in a row where they were unable to adopt a budget. In 2007, Gov. Brian Schweitzer called them all back in for a special session after he lined up the Republican votes he needed to pass his plan.

Lawmakers say they don’t want a repeat of the historic 2007 failure.

“I think we can get to where we need to go in the next couple of days,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber. “I think at the end of the day we are going to get there, we are going to make it work. It is incumbent on us to do that.”

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