HELENA – Senate Republicans rallied Wednesday around their leadership’s budget plan and moved it toward Gov. Brian Schweitzer — who has made it clear a veto or complete rewrite is likely — as both sides readied for more negotiations.
Republican leaders started making plans to take a break of a few days to let the governor mull the spending plan, which is being sent in several pieces. There were a few hiccups along the way as Republicans didn’t get enough votes Wednesday on one bill to refashion a voter-approved initiative on children’s health insurance in order to free up money for GOP budget cuts.
Republican and Democratic leaders even retreated behind closed doors in hopes a deal on procedural moves could be reached out of the public eye — a place where bipartisan agreement can sometimes be found. But Republican leaders said no deal on quickly speeding a key companion bill to the main budget measure could be reached after Democrats consulted with Schweitzer’s office.
House Speaker Mike Milburn brushed it off, and said Republican leaders could still make the moves necessary to move enough of the bills out of both chambers in order to recess for a long weekend. He said that would allow legislative leaders, who have used up 82 of the 90 days they are constitutionally allowed to meet, more days to use later in the month as they spar with the governor.
“I think we are on track,” Milburn said.
Milburn said he remains confident a budget deal will eventually be reached in negotiations with the governor. Schweitzer has met with Milburn and Peterson as recently as Monday on the budget, but neither side has yet shown a willingness to budge.
The Senate majority on Wednesday moved the budget — a day after stalling on a tied vote when a few conservative Republicans turned their back on the spending plan. Republican leaders collected the stragglers, and the chamber endorsed the budget in a 28-22 party line vote Wednesday.
One of those switching his vote, Sen. Greg Hinkle of Thomson Falls, said he agreed it was important for the GOP to stick together in order to advance the package toward negotiations with the governor.
Republican leaders have been struggling to keep some in their caucus from abandoning a plan that ardent conservatives don’t believe cuts enough.
The House had previously agreed with the plan, which now it goes to Schweitzer’s desk as soon as Thursday.
The governor has been very critical of the way Republicans abandoned $100 million in federal money for programs largely aimed at the needy. Schweitzer also doesn’t like the way key companion bills dealing with school funding are still in flux, or tinker with other programs in ways he objects to.
The Republican spending plan also cuts spending of state tax money by about $130 million compared to Schweitzer’s offering. The governor argues the Republicans are being overly pessimistic, and needlessly making further cuts to education spending in a way that will leader to college tuition and local property tax increases.
Schweitzer said he proposed a balanced budget that kept such programs whole, such as by relying more on transfers from other pots of state money.
Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann of Billings said he hopes the governor takes a good look at the plan and works with the Republicans to further cut spending.
“The Republican proposal includes prudent and responsible decisions to match spending with revenue while protecting the most vulnerable members of our community,” he said. “Republicans have prepared a responsible budget for today, to create more opportunity tomorrow.”
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