Montana Budget Impasse Broken with Tentative Deal

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Key negotiators said Saturday that they have reached a tentative deal to break a budget stalemate — bringing hope that lawmakers will finish their work in time.

Butte Rep. Jon Sesso, a Democrat, and Sen. Keith Bales, a Republican from Otter, said details are still being worked out on the compromise. They hope to have it finalized by Monday morning so a joint conference committee can vote on it.

Both said it is subject to approval from their full caucuses. But conference committee members given a briefing on the general outline Saturday gave positive reviews — even though neither side is expected to be completely happy.

“I think that as far as I am concerned, it’s like any conference committee, you win some and you lose some,” said Sen. Dave Lewis, a veteran Republican from Helena.

The governor’s office, however, said it was withholding judgment until it can review the full package.

Sesso said that he thinks the governor’s office will be able to sign off on the deal once it learns the details.

Sesso said the plan allows for implementation of the voter-approved expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Plan in late 2009. But excess money being funneled into a special account will be swept out for use in other areas, including propping up agency budget cut in the GOP senate spending plan.

That will allow projected reserves of at least $250 million to be kept in place, a key point for Republicans. The budget will also be “structurally balanced” — meaning that in each budget year no more money will be spent than is collected by the state in each given year.

“You’ve probably reached an agreement that’s as good as it’s going to get,” said Rep. Ray Hawk, a Republican conference committee member from Florence.

Rep. Llew Jones, a Conrad Republican known as a pragmatic deal maker, said each side stood on its philosophies to exert pressure on the other side “but no one bled to death.”

The Legislature only has two days left to constitutionally finish the job of adopting a state budget. The Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn on Tuesday.

The proposed deal will be voted on Monday in the conference committee, before being sent to each floor, as long as details can be worked out and as long as each side finds enough support in their caucuses.

“It’s not as much as I would have hoped for, but apparently it’s more than other people would have wanted,” Sesso said.

Bales agreed.

“I don’t think anyone got exactly what they wanted, but I think that it is a budget we can live with,” he said.

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