HELENA – Montana’s Democratic governor’s office used words that left no doubt about its stand on the Republican spending proposal as state senators start work on it: unacceptable, unconstitutional, absurd and ridiculous.
Friday’s comments by David Ewer, Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s budget director, set a stark tone for what already promised to be tense negotiations over the next month. Republicans didn’t seem too inclined to waiver in the face of the criticism as they started tinkering on a budget that recently cleared a House controlled by their GOP colleagues.
“This is kind of an unprecedented situation to have the governor’s office draw a line in the sand and dare us to cross it,” said veteran lawmaker Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena. “But we will do our job.”
The Republican budget plan at this point cuts spending of state money about 5 percent, while rejecting about $120 million in federal money for social programs, such as food assistance for the needy. It cuts perhaps $100 million from Schweitzer’s offering — not much in the scope of a two-year plan that spends $3.7 billion in state tax money but enough to set up some big differences.
Ewer avoided using the term “veto.” But he left lawmakers with the clear impression that the Democratic governor could reject the GOP spending plan.
“I now believe you think some of our work is absurd and ridiculous. I understand there is a probability of a veto of the bill,” Lewis told Ewer.
Rep. Walt McNutt, R-Sydney, pitched the Republican budget plan as a new way of doing business. It considers taxpayers first, he said. House Republicans snubbed all the federal money because they believe the programs connected to it would require state funding in the future, McNutt said.
Ewer made it clear the administration is not impressed.
“This bill in its current form is not acceptable to the governor. It woefully underfunds education, it woefully underfunds public services, it woefully underfunds corrections,” said Ewer, a former legislator himself.
The governor’s budget, which included a series of transfers from various pots of money in order to simultaneously cut some taxes while increasing education spending, would be a better alternative, he said. Republicans say they don’t like the way the governor’s proposal spends more than the state will receive in the two-year budget period.
The Republican majority’s cuts to food assistance for single moms, health care for children, prescription drug help for the elderly and other areas shows where that party’s priorities lie, Ewer said. The corrections budget that reduced allowed overtime for prison workers is just wishful thinking, he said.
“What it seems to us is a deliberate choice by the majority to cut public health care, education and public safety because that is what you want to do,” Ewer said.
After Ewer called another part of the budget “absurd” and “ridiculous,” Lewis cautioned Ewer against going too far.
“For goodness sake you are going to have to come up here at points in time, think ahead,” said the Senate Finance Committee chairman.
Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, said Republicans must cut spending.
“When the economy is bad, we tighten to tighten our belt,” he said. “I think by tightening our belt and watching our spending and being conservative with our dollars is not a hard thing to look at, it’s a realistic thing.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.