HELENA – Montana Republicans in dominant control of the Legislature start work this week on an ambitious plan to tackle everything from medical marijuana to the way the state takes federal money to run its programs.
The Legislature’s sole constitutional duty is to adopt a balanced budget. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has proposed a plan that meets that bar — but Republicans want to go further and cut spending to match what they perceive as an austerity mandate from voters.
And there will be no shortage of issues beyond the budget.
The list includes: revamping or repealing medical marijuana; cracking down on drunken driving; evaluating a court’s legalization of physician-assisted suicide; making worker’s compensation insurance more affordable to business; rolling back environmental laws; resisting implementation of federal health care reform; pushing for state control of wolves; and fixing a beleaguered state pension system.
And that list doesn’t even include hot-button issues such as restricting access to abortion. The abortion debate is certainly to be advanced by some Republicans, even though it has not been tagged as a top priority for GOP leaders focused on jobs and spending.
Republican leaders on top of big governing majorities see a rare chance to remake the budgeting process and make the environmental regulatory environmental more business-friendly.
“I think it’s going to be a real important session,” said Senate President Jim Peterson, a Republican and rancher from Buffalo. “I think it’s an opportunity to be a turning point for the state.”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, an unpredictable Democrat, has made it clear he won’t be afraid to use his veto pen. And he also said any move by the GOP to cut education spending is unnecessary since he outlined a plan to increase it — while nearly abolishing the business equipment tax in the process.
Liberal Democrats who in the past have been frustrated at Schweitzer for being too conservative are likely to find this session that the independent-minded governor could be their only hope when it comes to fending off attacks on everything from environmental law to school funding.
But Democratic House leader Rep. Jon Sesso, of Butte, thinks there will be a lot of common ground looking for ways to spur the economy and trim spending.
“I am going to be focused on jobs and I am going to be focused on things that will stimulate the continued growth of our economy,” Sesso said. “The economy has to remain front and center.”
Republicans hold a 68-32 advantage in the Senate and don’t really need support from Democrats in the chamber.
GOP leaders don’t like how the governor’s proposed budget plan spends more in the two-year budget period than the state is expected to take in, balancing the budget by draining various pots of money.
Some leading Republicans want to even cut the spending of federal money that pays for about half of state government — at the expense of state programs that rely on the stream of money. It could be a tough sell since such cuts don’t usually offer an immediate, direct benefit to Montana taxpayers — and since the federal government could simply spend the money elsewhere anyway.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, of Billings, said he thinks voters want more austerity even if it means less government services — and means turning away from the federal money.
“People have a belief that endless debt-fueled spending must stop in this country,” Essmann said. “Because the world has changed so dramatically, I think it is time for some out-of-the-box thinking.”
In the House, about half of the 68 Republicans are freshman legislators — many of them driven to victory by the excitement surrounding tea party conservatism.
Cascade rancher Mike Milburn, who will be leading the chamber, said his top priority will be expanding the economy, primarily by promoting natural resource development. That will include making it easier to get permits.
Republicans are talking about drastically rewriting the Montana Environmental Policy, which will surely be resisted by minority Democrats who say going too far could cause unforeseen problems and instead will argue in favor of smaller tweaks to regulatory rules. And Schweitzer has said the current state rules are not getting in the way of natural resource development.
Milburn said the GOP will also look at appropriations that are written into law, everything from the tobacco cessation hotline to the state poet laureate post. He expects in total, the Republicans could try to cut as much as $50 million when dozens of such programs are axed.
The ambitious new GOP majority also wants to crack open the complicated property tax appraisal and calculation scheme with the goal of reducing the amount residents pay.
Milburn said those cuts might have to be phased in down the road, since money is tight this session. And tax cuts are not the top priority this year.
Milburn hopes that Schweitzer — who has said the session will be all about jobs — will like their ideas.
“We are prioritizing and focusing on the issues that we believe are necessary to get out economy going again,” said Milburn. “A lot of this is nonpartisan and something the governor shouldn’t have a problem with.”
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