Montana Legislative Budget Stalemate Drags on

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A legislative budget stalemate over issues like children’s health insurance and education continued Wednesday with no noticeable movement, as both sides blamed the other for failing to compromise.

Democrats want a measure that is pretty close to the full bipartisan budget that cleared the House, but said they are willing to give a little.

Republicans, however, are sticking close to the GOP-controlled Senate’s cuts to the voter-approved expansion of children’s health insurance and to state agencies, along with a shift of education funding increases to federal stimulus money.

Party leaders said committee chairmen are meeting informally in hopes of drafting a deal.

But the key committees charged with resolving those differences — along with mitigation of property tax value increases — met only briefly Wednesday. The Legislature only has four days left constitutionally to finish its only required duty: adopting a state budget.

Senate President Bob Story, a Republican from Park City, said Democrats are unwilling to compromise.

“We really don’t know who’s driving the process on the other side,” he said. “We thought we were making some progress yesterday and today things backed up a little bit.”

House Speaker Bob Bergren, a Havre Democrat, said Republicans keep making demands without offering anything in return.

“Every time they come here they just want more from us,” Bergren said.

The top House Democrat, who oversees a chamber split 50-50, said Democrats have indicated they might be willing to ratchet in the effect of the Initiative 155 expansion of CHIP that voters overwhelmingly approved in November.

“I think that’s a give for the Democrats,” Bergren said. “I think it’s a major give for the voters of Montana.”

Bergren said he thinks the panel dealing with mitigating the property tax effects of rising values should have a deal Thursday. He then said he can envision the budget deal finalized by Friday, allowing staff to formalize the paperwork over the weekend before the Legislature meets next week for its final two days.

“Obviously, there is some chess game playing right not,” Bergren said. “It can all be done.”