GOP, Montana Governor Head Toward Budget Fight

State Budget

HELENA – Republican budget-crafters finalized a state spending plan Thursday night and prepared to send Gov. Brian Schweitzer a budget for Montana that he has already threatened to veto.

The inevitable march toward the conflict came after the GOP leaders made only the smallest of concessions toward the Democratic governor.

Schweitzer, who has promised a veto unless the Republicans restore spending of about $100 million in federal funds primarily for social programs such as food stamps and assistance for the elderly, re-affirmed the veto option late Thursday.

But the governor noted he could also issue an amendatory veto that allows him to suggest as many changes as he likes. The Republican-led Legislature would then have a chance to react to that.

Or Schweitzer said he could possibly let the budget, which he called unconstitutional and unworkable because so many companion bills are in flux, become law without his signature. That could allow him to call lawmakers back into special session in the summer to fix it — after he had plenty of time to point out its perceived flaws to the rest of the state.

“This is the equivalent of sending me a pickup with no tires, no steering wheel and no transmission, and expect me to take it on a two-year drive,” Schweitzer said. “They are in the process of sending me a partial House Bill 2, one that cannot possibly drive the functions of the government over the next two years.”

Republicans, who believe the spending plan is responsible and makes needed cuts, said they hope the governor changes his mind and signs the bill.

Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena, leading the panel finalizing the Legislature’s spending plan, said the majority does not feel the money is available for the changes the Democrats want. He said the federal budget battle in Washington D.C. shows there could be far less federal money flowing to states in the future, and he expects those funds won’t be able to sustain half of the state budget as they have in the past.

“There is going to be a lot less money coming down for a lot of these programs,” Lewis said. “We are seeing a paradigm shift as far as what our economy is doing and where it is going and what is happening at the federal government.”

The Republican budget plan cuts spending of state tax money about 6 percent. Federal money is down much more, mostly because there is no stimulus money and because Republicans elected to forgo almost $100 million in federal funds primarily for social programs such as food stamps and assistance for the elderly.

None of that money was restored in Thursday’s moves, which mostly dealt with relatively small amounts of money. The few changes made would restore overtime money for prison and social workers, and retain an energy promotion division favored by the administration.

Schweitzer argued that Montana has enough money to cover his spending plan, and believes Republicans are making ideologically-driven decisions to cut programs and reduce education spending

Another amendment modified the bill so it can fund schools close to current levels in case the separate bills intended to increase school funding fail amid differences over what to do with oil-and-gas money stockpiled with some eastern Montana districts.

Democrats were able to convince the panel to restore less than $20,000 for the school for the deaf and blind. Otherwise Republicans again rebuffed the efforts from the minority to restore millions for other programs.

Republicans leading the final panel making changes to this budget proposal said they have already compromised since many of the conservatives in their caucus wanted cuts as steep as 20 percent. Spending more is not an option for them.

“We have a lot of people mad at us who wanted us to cut much more,” said Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber.

Lewis said the governor will have to make up his own mind.

“He has to do what he has to do,” said the veteran lawmaker and former state budget director.

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