Montana Republicans Pave the Way for Budget Cuts

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republicans started scaling back budget expectations Tuesday with proposed cuts across state government — from schools to nursing homes — in a move aimed at making it easier to reduce state spending as lawmakers hash out spending plans.

The early move provided a roadmap for the Republican majority’s budget plan, which was trashed by Democrats as unnecessarily austere compared to Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposal.

The GOP starting point approved Tuesday is 8 percent less than the administration’s proposal, although the Republican leaders expect to ultimately hand Schweitzer a budget in April that is 5 percent less than his original proposal.

Tuesday’s move also showed what kind of programs could be on the chopping block — including foster care, various disability services, money hospitals and doctors rely on to serve the poor and mentally ill, base school funding and much more.

Schweitzer’s administration said the move was unnecessary since it proposed a constitutionally balanced budget. Democratic lawmakers said further cuts force the poor, elderly, mentally ill, school advocates and others to beg over the next few months for the relatively small amount of money the GOP plans to add back into spending.

Republicans don’t like the way Schweitzer proposed balancing the budget by transferring money out of various state funds, even if it does cut taxes while increasing education funding. The governor argues revenue will increase to match spending faster than currently projected thanks to an improving economy.

The impact of the starting point was unclear even as Republican lawmakers were pushing it through various subcommittees. Staff members had yet to analyze how much federal matching money would be abandoned if the cuts are enacted in the end.

The Republican move would effectively place overall state spending at $3.45 billion over the two-year budget period, analysts said. But GOP leaders are ultimately aiming for an overall spending level of $3.58 billion to match predicted tax revenue over the next biennium — giving them flexibility to add about $130 million more into agency programs or tax cuts in the coming months.

In the current budget period that ends in June, the state is expected to spend about $3.52 billion.

The Schweitzer administration budget proposed spending about $3.76 billion, or roughly $183 million more than what the GOP is targeting in the end.

Negotiations over the final figure will first go to subcommittees meeting over the next few weeks. Republicans in charge of those committees want members to look for even other specific areas that could be cut in order to find extra money that could be funneled into higher need areas, such as some of the social services for the elderly and disabled, said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena.

“The process is very painful,” Lewis said. “You have to do it in the context of weighing one issue against the other.”

Advocates and others will be all jockeying for that $130 million to restore their favored program.

Some important programs would be gutted under Tuesday’s action, said Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

“It would be absolutely devastating to Montana,” she said. “Why would you cut money if you know you are going to put it back in? Especially when it is people you are talking about. You are scaring them.”

Schweitzer administration Budget Director David Ewer said Tuesday’s move, and the cuts ultimately planned by the Republican majority, may shift as time goes on.

“It is early. The legislative process is going to go through a lot of gyrations and we respect that,” Ewer said.

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