HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Wednesday the state budget picture already looks rosier since last month, using the news to needle Republicans who have taken a more pessimistic outlook.
He said tax collections are outpacing earlier estimates he used when he first pitched his two-year spending proposal last month. He is now predicting that an additional $120 million available for the budget that lawmakers will hash out early next year.
Schweitzer made it a point to demonstrate the proposal given to lawmakers last month would cut business taxes, give homeowners a tax rebate and increase education funding.
But Republicans in control of the Legislature said Schweitzer’s budget is balanced by raiding various pots of money around state government and by ending funding for many local infrastructure projects.
Schweitzer lampooned the Republicans for defending what he characterized as “earmarks” for local constituents, borrowing a politically volatile phrase from Washington, D.C.
“If the Legislature decides to come to town and cut education, that is because that is where there values are,” Schweitzer said. “I hear some saying they are going to decrease it 5 percent. But that’s not because we don’t have the money in the bank.”
Schweitzer said construction companies and contractors who have complained about potentially losing state spending on local infrastructure projects — which can pay for bridges or water systems or the like — should stop relying on government contracts and instead compete in the private sector.
Schweitzer said tax collections are up more than expected in most every category, from personal income taxes to corporate taxes, a sign the economy is improving more than first anticipated.
Sen. Dave Lewis, a Helena Republican who will chair the Senate Finance Committee when lawmakers convene next month, said they will have to take a close look at the numbers. He said he expected the governor to increase the revenue estimate to help buoy his budget proposal, but didn’t expect it to go up so much.
“The money isn’t there just because the governor says it is. We have to look at the numbers and analyze them and make sure,” Lewis said. “I am amazed at that amount, so I am really interested to see where that is coming from.”
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