HELENA – The Montana Legislature opened Monday the way it is likely to finish: with Republican lawmakers sparring with a strong-willed governor’s office over budget priorities.
Republicans coming off huge election wins in November made it clear that they are eager to put forward ambitious plans to put their imprint on state government now that they hold firm control of both chambers.
But Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, made it clear to the GOP that he thinks there is enough money to both increase money for schools — and mostly eradicate a widely denounced tax on business equipment at the same time.
Republicans, who hold a 68-32 edge in the House and a 28-22 advantage in the Senate, debated with the governor’s budget director at an early Monday gathering of lawmakers who will be on budget committees.
Leading Republicans said Monday that as much as $360 million may have to come out of the inflation-adjusted spending plan for the next two years.
Republicans don’t like the way the governor balances the budget by raiding various pots of money. Schweitzer argues the GOP is trying to unnecessarily cut education spending since he gave them a blueprint that does not do so.
“This administration is unapologetically for public education,” budget director David Ewer said about the governor’s proposal. “We need to educate our children so they have the ability to compete on the world scene for jobs.”
Some of the money to fill the budget comes by taking money that is normally tagged for local infrastructure. Ewer told the lawmakers that “from our perspective, old bridges get to wait two years.”
Republicans argue Montanans want reduced spending — even if it means taking less federal money.
“I think the governor and us need to be cognizant of the fact that the people of Montana want us to reign in spending, not just match it to revenue,” said Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber. “The people of Montana want us to be cognizant that they can’t afford this.”
Republicans are also not happy with a proposal from the Schweitzer administration to balance the books by taking some oil and gas revenue that largely benefits just some counties in eastern Montana’s oil patch and spreading it around the state like is done with some other natural resource money.
The GOP and the governor’s office also differ on the revenue projections, with the governor’s office banking on more than $100 million extra over the two-year budget period.
Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, said Ewer was “looking through rose-colored glasses.”
Ewer pointed out that for a decade the Legislature has consistently underestimated incoming revenue.
“We might not be right — the odds are we won’t be spot on,” Ewer said. “But I think it’s clear we are less wrong.”
During the opening floor sessions, after all the lawmakers were sworn into office, both Republicans and Democrats made strong statements in favor of working together.
But later at press conferences, both sides made it clear there are some areas where disagreement could be strong.
The GOP majority wants to roll back environmental laws, consider cutting state employee salaries, revamp parts of the school system and do whatever is possible to prevent state implementation of federal health care reform and other mandates.
House Speaker Mike Milburn said that expanding Medicare as is prescribed could cost Montana $150 million.
“Obamacare will break our state,” he said. “We need to send a clear message to back off. Montanans don’t want it.”
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