HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Monday that he will veto the Republican spending plan if some big changes aren’t made, a move that makes it clear that a big sticking point is the legislative majority’s plan to sacrifice millions of federal dollars intended for social services and other areas.
Schweitzer said the unused money won’t be used to reduce federal spending and that it will be re-allocated to other states. Republicans say the money was spurned to satisfy conservative lawmakers who wanted to cut spending and cut back on entitlement programs.
The budget fight is heating up with just 15 legislative days left.
A joint House-Senate panel planned to meet Tuesday afternoon, with hopes of finalizing the spending plan by week’s end. At the same time, a bipartisan group of lawmakers was advancing their funding mechanism for schools — a necessary cog after the original plan died in the Senate.
But Schweitzer was most focused on two other issues Monday.
He argued the way Republicans were trying to implement of their spending plan with several different bills was unconstitutional, and promised to veto them if the legislative majority goes through with the plans.
He also objected to forgoing the federal money for programs for the needy, such as food stamps and heating bill assistance for the elderly.
Schweitzer said plenty of Republicans in the Legislature are fine with federal aid for ranchers and farmers, along with money for roads and other projects. He argued it is wrong to take a stand in House Bill 2, the main budget bill, against federal money when it is just for the poor.
Schweitzer said Republican leaders need to rally enough support among their ranks to restore the federal money.
Sen. Dave Lewis, who chairs the key budget committee in the Senate, said Monday that he does not disagree too strongly with the governor’s office that there are too many side bills implementing the spending plan. But he said restoring the federal money in the spending plan won’t fly with conservative lawmakers.
Also on Monday, Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg said he is proposing Congress change federal rules so that money rejected by states would indeed go toward deficit reduction — a proposal that likely faces a difficult and long path if it is to become law.
In another state budget area, Lewis said the governor’s office is not communicating directly with the Republican majority on what changes the administration needs in the spending of state money in order to sign off on the budget.
“I have no idea what they want,” Lewis said.
Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said he was “disappointed” with the governor’s veto promise.
“We have been working hard to put a good conservative budget together,” Essmann said. “I am disappointed in the reaction to it before it is in final form.”
A big piece remaining is the mechanism for funding schools. A House panel was working on a proposal that would take oil and gas money from resource-rich districts in eastern Montana for redistribution around the state, to a lesser extent than Schweitzer originally sought.
That would allow Republican lawmakers to increase K-12 funding. Lewis said it will be the final piece of the puzzle for the joint panel of lawmakers charged with finalizing the budget.
Overall, the Republican proposal decreases state spending about 5 percent.
Schweitzer threatened to keep bringing lawmakers back to “summer school” if they don’t give him a budget he likes.
“And I’ll be damned if we’re going to pay for air conditioning in the middle of summer,” Schweitzer said.
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