UPDATED: GOP Budget Plan Cuts State Spending 6 Percent

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The budget battle moves to the Montana House floor on Friday with the Republican majority aiming to cut enough spending to meet conservative expectations — while beating back criticism from opponents that their proposed cuts will hurt the poor and could result in college tuition hikes.

A tally of GOP budget actions so far in committee shows that spending of state tax money would go down about 6 percent from the current budget, to about $3.7 billion. That is about 3 percent less than what Gov. Brian Schweitzer proposed in his budget offering to lawmakers.

Overall spending, including federal money, is reduced 10 percent largely because there is no federal stimulus money as there was in the last two-year budget plan and Republican budget crafters are rejecting about $120 million in federal money for social services.

Republicans say they are spurning the federal money because they believe it creates future obligations for the state, while Democrats argue it is wrong to cut programs funded by federal money that does not create a burden on state taxpayers.

The full House is scheduled to vote on the budget Friday, Saturday and Monday.

It is unlikely that any of the chamber’s 32 Democrats, who feel ignored by the majority, will vote for the Republican budget plan.

That means Republicans will likely need to get 51 votes out of their 68 members to send a budget plan to the Senate. Republican leaders will be wooing the ardent fiscal conservatives in their rank, many who have campaigned heavily on cutting government more than 6 percent.

House Speaker Mike Milburn, a Cascade rancher, said Thursday that he is confident there are votes in the House to pass the budget. He also said it is possible there could be moves on the House floor to cut further.

House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said Democrats won’t vote in favor of the GOP budget plan. Particularly bothersome to Democrats are cuts to social assistance programs and the still unresolved revamping of funding for K-12 education.

Sesso said he thinks Republicans are cutting the money just to send a statement to their base that is very worried about federal spending. The Democrat said he believes Montana already has an austere state budget and that forgoing the federal money will do nothing to solve the federal problem.

“The values that we are sticking up for are not reflected in the current product,” Sesso said. “We cannot support the product that is going over to the Senate.”

Republicans found the bulk of their cuts in the health and human services, general government administration and by trimming a long list of programs that previously had funding guaranteed in state law.

Federal money is being rejected for a long list of programs, including modernization of medical records, reduction of a voter-approved expansion in health care for children and physician reimbursement rates. Other cuts in the Department of Public Health and Human Services include reductions to tobacco prevention, prescription drug assistance for seniors and privatization of the veterans’ home in Columbia Falls.

Overall spending on education and public safety remains about the same.

House Republicans crafted the plan in a series of committee votes last week and early this week.

Part of those moves restored the education funding from previous cuts to roughly the same amount request by Gov. Brian Schweitzer — but does so in different ways. And the Republican education plan is still in flux since much of it is based on pending legislation in the Senate that has not yet been vetted.

Democrats argue the cuts are unnecessary. And Schweitzer has lambasted the Republicans for ignoring an improving economic forecast in the state that he believes allows them to keep needed programs in place.

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