HELENA – Republicans leaders have been meeting behind the scenes with Gov. Brian Schweitzer during the Legislature’s first half, but as the lawmakers clear the midpoint the two sides remain far apart on the GOP legislative agenda that is cruising toward his desk.
Schweitzer and the Republican leaders for the House and Senate have met several times in person and also held phone meetings. But the governor’s criticism of the GOP legislative package has only been increasing.
House Speaker Mike Milburn said he hopes to continue meeting over the last 45 days of the Legislature as the heavy lifting of drafting a budget package hits full stride.
Neither side has publicized the meetings, the last of which took place two weeks ago. The governor’s office said the meetings were never on his public schedule given to reporters because they were spur-of-the-moment conversations set up at the last minute.
Schweitzer said no agreement was reached during the discussions, although he believes both sides would eventually like to reach one.
Milburn concurred with the assessment.
Democrats hold minority positions in the Legislature and have little hope there of forcing change on the primary Republican proposals to cut the governor’s budget. The GOP leaders are promising to advance business-friendly changes to an expensive worker’s compensation system, tilt environmental laws in the favor of industry and scores of other proposals favored by conservatives.
But Democrats do have enough votes to uphold a veto from Schweitzer — and the governor has made it clear he could be vetoing a lot of bills. Last week, he registered a “VETO” cattle brand with state livestock officials.
Schweitzer has been increasingly dismissive of work Republicans are doing in the Legislature. He said the needed work comp reform should be based on the plan his administration helped craft over three years with the help of labor and business interests. But doctors who saw their rates cut and insurance companies who didn’t like aspects of the plan are backing the GOP proposal instead.
The budget battle may be the biggest issue.
Schweitzer is calling proposed GOP cuts to his budget for schools and colleges unnecessary, saying they will result in local property tax and tuition increases. The governor also said cuts to social services will be especially harsh on the needy.
But Republicans argue the cuts must be made in order to achieve “structural balance,” meaning that the state only spends as much in the next two-year budget period as it receives in tax revenue in that same time period. They don’t like the way the governor balances his budget with money carried over from the previous budget period and raids several pots of cash around state government to make ends meet.
But the governor ramped up his criticism over the past week. He even said he may be willing to veto a Republican budget he doesn’t like and force lawmakers to come back in the early summer to do it again. Schweitzer has called some GOP proposals “kooky” and ones trying to nullify federal laws “anti-American.”
Milburn said the governor’s tough rhetoric may make it harder for he and Senate President Jim Peterson to continue meeting with Schweitzer in the second half.
“It has so far been a very cordial relationship,” Milburn said of meetings so far. “As time goes on hopefully there will more direct communication.”
Milburn and Peterson are both known by their colleagues as cordial and low-key. Neither is aggressive with their rhetoric, as Schweitzer often is, nor do they seek the limelight.
The fate of a tense relationship is up to Schweitzer, said Peterson, a rancher from Buffalo.
“You keep asking how we are going to get along with the governor,” said Peterson. “You know the two of us, that’s up to the governor.”
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