Montana Budget Compromise Moves Forward

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Legislative committees on Monday hammered out details of a bipartisan budget compromise that gives both Democrats and Republicans something to vote for when it hits the full Legislature on Tuesday.

Lawmakers are scheduled to finish their work Tuesday, the 90th and final day they are constitutionally allowed to meet.

Democrats will get full implementation of the voter-approved expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and more ongoing state support for K-12 education.

Republicans get a budget that spends a little less through ongoing commitments than the House plan originally sought, along with some smaller initiatives sought by the GOP.

At the same time, the compromise allows for passage of the $880 million federal stimulus plan. Most of the spending was dictated by Congress, such as for roads and bridges, but lawmakers had discretion with some of it and will be using it for such areas as boosting local infrastructure spending.

The broad budget compromise is expected to have enough votes for final passage on Tuesday, but there will be critics from the more conservative ranks of the GOP.

On Monday night, the Senate endorsed the compromise aspects to the stimulus plan, House Bill 645, on a 37-13 vote. Opponents argued it was wrong to spend the money, calling it “a federal spending spree.”

“There is no money in these silos. It is a hole in the ground that is going to have to be paid for by our children and our children’s children,” said Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman. “We are living beyond our means and our children are going to have to pay for this lavish lifestyle.”

Most supported it, touting the extra money that aims to boost construction and buoys state services like Medicaid that are expected to face pressure in a down economy.

“It brings a lot of money into Montana. It funds a lot of good projects,” said Sen. John Esp, R-Big timber. “In my opinion, it is a needed thing.”

Votes on the main budget bill and a companion that makes the changes in law needed for the spending will be on the House and Senate floors Tuesday morning.

Democrats expressed pleasure with a deal that allows for implementation of Initiative 155 late this year, even though some money will be swept out of a special account established by voters and used instead to pay for other things.

House Speaker Bob Bergren said a working majority of 50 Democrats and a dozen or so Republicans from a chamber split 50-50 allowed him to represent a consolidated front in talks with the GOP-controlled Senate. He said that allowed them to get most of the funding they wanted for areas like CHIP and education.

Bergren said he’s confident after speaking with Gov. Brian Schweitzer that the governor will support the deal.

“I think he will be fine with the way it looks,” Bergren said.

Republicans touted the budget’s final projected reserves of about $250 million and “structural balance” that ensures the state will not spend more than it takes in during a budget year.

“I think it’s a good bill and hopefully it will pass the floor in both houses,” said Rep. Ray Hawk, a Florence Republican on the committee that finalized the compromise spending plan.

Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter, said Republicans wanted to make sure state finances were in shape for a recession that could have lingering effects on state tax collections.

“I think all of us are fearful as to what lays ahead for us as far as revenues are concerned,” he said.

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