Montana Lawmakers Finalize Budget Compromise and Adjourn

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Lawmakers wrapped up their work Tuesday by finalizing a state budget that offers modest overall increases, and completed plans for nearly a billion dollars worth of federal stimulus money.

Lawmakers needed all 90 of the days the Montana Constitution gives them to adopt a spending plan after a nearly evenly split Legislature fought for weeks over different spending plans. But both chambers adjourned amicably by mid-afternoon Tuesday.

In the end, both Republicans and Democrats were able to say they got some, but not all, of what they wanted.

About $8 billion in federal and state money flows through the main state budget. Spending is up about 1.5 percent in each of the two budget years House Bill 2 covers.

Republican negotiators came out pleased the final package maintains projected reserves in the state’s main account of about $262 million, in addition to another $100 million of reserves for forest fires, Medicaid case load growth and other potential emergencies.

Democrats are happy they were able to implement the voter-approved expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, get increases of 3 percent each year for education spending, and allocate federal stimulus funds the way they wanted.

The stimulus package spends about $900 million in federal money, most of it routed by Congress to specific areas like road and bridge construction. Lawmakers were able to set their own priorities with some of it, and used it to backfill education and state government as well as buoy local infrastructure spending.

Rep. Law Jones, a Conrad Republican known as a dealmaker, played a key role in negotiating the final product.

“On the Republican side of the aisle we felt it was as conservative a budget as we could get in this mix,” Jones said.

The spending bills needed all of the support they could get.

House Bill 645, which allocates the stimulus money, only cleared the House on a 51-49 vote and the Senate on a 34-16 vote. House Bill 2, the main budget cleared the House on a 56-44 vote and the Senate on a 27-23 vote.

Critics came at the final package from the left and the right.

Conservatives said it still spends too much money, creates new government entitlements by endorsing the Initiative 155 expansion of CHIP, and does not adequately take into account how far revenues will fall as the recession hits state tax collections. They argue a special session will be likely needed to further cut the budget.

“This is not going to work, we are going to be back here,” said Sen. Jim Choicely, R-Victor.

But Senate Republican leaders, who control a chamber by a 27-23 margin, backed the plan as the best compromise they could reach.

They negotiated primarily with House Democrats, who were running a working majority in a chamber split 50-50.

The Republican leaders in the House opposed the spending plan altogether, and didn’t really have a seat at the table negotiating budget matters in recent days.

“We are still spending a big pile of money,” House Republican Leader Scott Sales of Bozeman said of his opposition to the spending plans.

Some Democrats, too, voted against the bill. Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, said the measure goes too far by imposing a 7 percent vacancy savings on state government jobs on top of accross-the-board cuts to some state agencies. She said lawmakers should be boosting state employment.

“I think they are especially important jobs because they are the people that provide services to those most impacted by the recession,” she argued.

And some who voted for it, offered lukewarm support.

Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter, led negotiations from the Senate side and said he’s not sure Republicans were able to do enough to restrict state spending and worried the recession would eat through projected reserves that are unordinary large.

But Bales said the budget was “the best product for today, not knowing what tomorrow will bring.”

Even though it took the full 90 days to reach a budget compromise, lawmakers were pleased the session ended normally — and far more amicably than two years ago when bitter partisanship led to a failed budget process and a unique special session.

House Speaker Bob Bergren said he aimed at the start to be the Speaker for both Democrats and Republicans, hoping to quell the rancor of two years ago.

“I hope I have earned that title on Day 90, that I was truly the Speaker of the House,” Bergren told his colleagues on the floor.

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