Tensions Flare Over Partisan Budget Plans

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The ongoing budget and revenue dispute between Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Republicans flared up Thursday, with the governor declaring he thinks in the end that GOP leaders will have to fund education and social services to levels he finds adequate.

Republican leaders said they have no plans to bend to the governor’s wishes.

Schweitzer has been arguing for months with Republicans and their legislative staffers over how much money the state will have to spend over the next two years. The governor believes they are being overly pessimistic, even though legislative analysts upped their projection roughly $100 million on Thursday. That is still less than the extra $164 million extra Schweitzer says is available as they dicker over the spending of more than $3 billion in state money.

The bigger fight remains over spending levels in key areas like education and social services. Republicans have been trimming that spending as part of a preliminary budget subcommittee process.

Schweitzer argues the Republicans are making moves that will force state colleges to raise tuition, local school districts to raise property taxes to backfill missing money and harm needy single moms and disabled children.

But Republicans say state spending needs to be cut to provide just the services Montana needs, and to match anticipated tax revenue over the next two years. The GOP leaders argue the state doesn’t have to spend all the tax revenue made available to it.

Schweitzer, holding a news conference debunking legislative revenue estimates, boldly proclaimed that in the end Republicans running the Legislature will see the budget picture mostly his way and spend what the governor thinks it will take to adequately fund K-12 schools, higher education, corrections and social services.

“They are going to get ‘er done,” Schweitzer said. “It is always sloppy along the way.”

Schweitzer wouldn’t say whether he would veto a proposed budget that spends less than he thinks is needed.

Democrats have been especially critical of GOP attempts to tinker with the children’s health insurance program, money set aside for smoking cessation, and state economic development programs. A day earlier Democratic leaders held a news conference to argue that Republicans have an overzealous desire to cut programs, and are looking for ways to justify it.

The overall difference, though, may not be that large. GOP leaders have said they are ultimately aiming for an overall spending level of $3.58 billion to match what they see as predicted tax revenue over the next biennium. The Schweitzer administration budget proposed spending about $3.76 billion, or roughly $183 million more than what key GOP budget crafters have targeted.

Republican leaders were not impressed with Schweitzer’s proclamation, or his other statement saying they are forcing the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Division to artificially hold revenue estimates low.

“This morning, the governor unfortunately turned the Capitol into an arena for political theatre,” Senate President Jim Peterson, a rancher from Buffalo, said in a statement. “At the end of the day, this Legislature will make decisions based on sound data and common sense, not on political showmanship by the Governor.”

House Speaker Mike Milburn said Republicans will continue trimming the proposed budget in a process that will play out in committees and floor action over the next two months.

“We can’t create our budget based around his threats,” Milburn said. “We have to do our job, and then we pass it onto him and he can do his job.”

Milburn, a former Air Force pilot and rancher from Cascade, said it is true that Republicans would prefer to shoot low on spending.

“We have to be careful. If we overspend, we are in big trouble,” Milburn said. “If we underspend, that just means we have more money in the bank in the end.”

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