HELENA – The Legislature got closer Monday to finalizing a state budget that few expect will get past Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has started looking into what a state government shutdown would look like even as he continued talking to Republican leaders about a deal.
Schweitzer said he spoke to House Speaker Mike Milburn and Senate President Jim Peterson on Monday as the Republican leaders were finalizing their budget plan in each chamber. Schweitzer has made it clear he may veto the bill or send back a proposed rewrite.
The biggest sticking points remain in spending for education and social services for the needy and elderly.
“There is no deal,” aid Schweitzer, a Democrat. “But what there is, is a willingness to continue to talk. I think they would agree we have built a great deal of trust over the last 90 days.”
Also on Monday, Schweitzer asked the attorney general to define which state services would be deemed essential if no budget deal is reached by July 1, when the current budget period ends.
Schweitzer said he is not sure if the National Guard could cover the prisons or if workers there could remain on duty. And he needs legal clarification in many other areas, from the Montana Highway Patrol to the inspections for movement of cattle.
But with nearly three months until a shutdown would be necessary — and 10 legislative days before lawmakers are constitutionally required to adjourn — there would seem to be plenty of time to reach a deal.
House Speaker Mike Milburn, a rancher from Cascade, dismissed talk of any state government shutdown.
“That’s not a factor. That’s not going to happen,” he said. “I think we can come to an agreement on where we should be.”
On Monday, the House endorsed in a 57-43 vote the Republican budget tweaked late last week by a joint House-Senate negotiating committee. The Senate followed suit late in the day with a close 26-24 vote. It was opposed by minority Democrats in both cases.
Final floor votes are scheduled for Tuesday.
Milburn said he had room to negotiate with the governor after that, but he made it clear that Republicans believe that last November’s elections give them a mandate to cut some spending.
“We have parameters that we will insist upon,” Milburn said.
Right now, the Republican proposal spends about $130 million less in state tax money that Schweitzer proposed. But the biggest area of disagreement may be the legislative majority’s plan to forgo about $100 million in federal money for social services, such as food stamps.
Schweitzer said it is hypocritical for Republicans, who voted Monday in favor of asking the federal government to spend money keeping the F-15 flying mission in Great Falls, to continue to support federal farm subsidies and federal money for highway projects while spurning help for the needy.
“But when money comes to Montana to take a disabled person, an elderly person: That is bad. That is the only thing I can conclude,” Schweitzer said.
The governor is also critical of the advancement of a budget bill without the necessary companion pieces, such as one dealing with school funding that cleared the House in an initial vote. But there is still negotiating with the Senate that must take place — and many potential pitfalls over the coming days — until that complicated proposal is finalized.
Still, Schweitzer expressed optimism Monday that a deal will be reached with Milburn and Peterson.
“We’ll find the middle ground. These are reasonable people that come from the same communities that we come from and we will find a way of getting this work done,” Schweitzer said. “Thank God this is not the United States Congress. These are still reasonable people that live close to where we live.
“We want to find a solution that is equitable for the most people in Montana.”
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