Gov. Schweitzer, GOP Leaders Off to Friendly Start

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer, meeting Tuesday with the new Republican legislative leaders, asked them to fully consider his proposals and promised to do the same with theirs during a friendly initial get-together.

Schweitzer, who has at times had confrontational relationships with past legislative leaders, repeated several times that no idea is off the table as lawmakers convene in January to rewrite his budget proposal and craft new laws. Both sides said they would like to work together.

“There isn’t any line in the sand. I want to work with you,” Schweitzer said.

The two sides discussed several issues expected to be sticking points during the session, but no agreements were reached.

House Speaker-elect Mike Milburn of Cascade made it clear the Republicans are leery of Schweitzer’s plan to use one-time sources of money from several different government funds to balance the budget.

The governor countered that past administrations — Republican and Democrat alike — have used the tactic, and he said it makes sense as the state begins to recover from lean times.

He pointed out his budget proposal increases education funding while cutting the business equipment tax for more than 98 percent of companies in the state. He said only the largest firms would be left paying it, and resisted the logic that the cut should also be extended to those companies as well.

“I’ll be out of here in two years,” said Schweitzer, who is facing term limits. “If you want to extend the cuts after that, go ahead. I’m out of here.”

Schweitzer said he would be open to Republican ideas to develop the state’s natural resources in a responsible way, but pushed back hard against the notion that Montana is a bad place to do business. He said firms from other states and Canada have told him otherwise.

Republicans said other issues will need to be addressed that will make it hard to balance the budget. They said the beleaguered pension system needs to be reformed, and said Schweitzer’s proposal to shore up the budget with pots of money that flowed down to local governments could shift the tax burden around.

Republicans may have a hard time making a good argument about “structural imbalance” where leftover money and miscellaneous funds are used to balance the budget — all while the governor will be pointing out his plan is able to cut taxes without hurting current services.

The GOP lawmakers point out more money will be spent under the governor’s plan than the state takes in with tax revenue inside the two-year budget period.

“What we have to be concerned about is the future,” Milburn said.

Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said he agrees with the general priorities established in Schweitzer’s budget. He said an early December meeting with his agency leaders would be helpful.

“We need to understand the process, and how that takes us into the future,” Peterson said.

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