Offers to Break Budget Stalemate Hardly Bipartisan

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republicans and Democrats caught in a budget stalemate are trading offers that move very little from their entrenched ideological positions — but both sides promised Friday to trudge ahead through tense negotiations.

Negotiators led by House Democrats and Senate Republicans are arguing over less than 3 percent of the state’s roughly $8 billion budget. But the issues in play cut to core values held closely by each party.

Republicans want to reduce spending from the House plan in order to increase reserves and reduce ongoing government obligations. Their plan does not include any tax cuts, a recognition of the austere times facing state coffers.

But the reductions, seemingly small in the big picture, are like a gut punch to Democrats trying to protect key Democratic principles like health care and education.

Democrats want full funding of Initiative 155, a big election-year win for their constituents, and a permanent increase in education funding of 3 percent for each year of the budget biennium. They are willing to accept reduced funding in other areas to get it done.

House Speaker Bob Bergren said Democrats offered a plan Friday that would allow Republicans to shift a small portion of education funding to one-time federal stimulus money. The offer fully expands CHIP eligibility to 250 percent of poverty level — but takes money projected to be excess for other areas including a portion to bolster reserves.

“I thought we were getting someplace,” Bergren said. “We are willing to talk.”

But in the big picture, the plan cuts very little in ongoing state spending — the only issue that Republicans are fighting for at this point.

Senate President Bob Story said the best Republican offer tells the Democrats they can have full implementation of the voter-approved expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program — as long as a like amount of money is cut elsewhere from state government.

In terms of overall money, it does almost nothing to split the difference between the Democratic-led House spending plan and the Senate GOP plan that are the basis of negotiations.

And Democrats, of course, don’t like the idea at all.

“I think they are taking this thing backward,” Bergren said.

Story even raised the specter of a special session. He drafted a petition — but did not circulate it — that would ask for a special session June 1.

2007 was the first time lawmakers were unable to complete their sole constitutional duty of adopting a budget. If it were to happen again this year — the Legislature only has two more business days left to get the job done — lawmakers would be acknowledging another historic stalemate.

Story said Democrats are not budging, and he thinks they are just trying to break the will of Republicans.

But he predicted the 27 Republicans who run the Senate will stick together now, and in a special session if that’s what it takes. The veteran lawmaker said all the same issues would still need to be settled — and Democrats won’t be able to pick off any easy Republican votes in order to get a quick settlement like in past special sessions.

“A special session this time will be like nothing else we’ve ever seen in the Legislature,” Story said. “That’s kind of the last option, to go to a special session.”

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