HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday criticized Republicans’ budget plan for abandoning federal money for Montana social programs.
Schweitzer met with Senate President Jim Peterson of Buffalo and House Speaker Mike Milburn of Cascade a day after he received the Republican majority’s main budget bill.
The governor has previously said he was likely to either veto the bill or rewrite it and send it back for further consideration. He has 10 calendar days to act.
The Republican leaders said the Legislature is taking a long weekend to give the governor time to review the spending plan and to save some of their eight remaining legislative days to react to his decision.
Peterson said he hopes the two sides can start finding compromise next week, after lawmakers give more analysis to unfinished companion bills that cover such items as school funding.
“Come Monday, hopefully we can talk and work our way to a solution,” Peterson told the governor.
However, neither side signaled the matter could be quickly resolved.
In the meeting, Schweitzer suggested the dispute could drag on beyond the 90 days the Legislature is allowed to meet. That would require a special session such as he called in 2007 to finalize a spending plan.
Schweitzer said in an interview after the meeting that he can’t pass final judgment on the spending package until he gets the companion bills, which won’t happen until next week at the soonest.
The final package must contain the federal money Republican lawmakers spurned for programs largely aimed at the needy, the governor said.
Republicans contend the money continues entitlement programs that create too much future burden, while Democrats counter it makes no sense to give money back to the federal government that will be spent elsewhere and not used to reduce the deficit.
“The answer is still the same,” Schweitzer said. “Without the federal money, without the companion bills, we don’t have anything to talk about.”
Many Republicans in the Legislature feel the spending plan didn’t cut enough from government. The proposal is about $130 million less than Schweitzer proposed in terms of spending state tax money.
Milburn noted fiscal conservatives in his caucus were willing to stick around as long as it takes to make sure spending isn’t increased. If the governor sends back a request for more money, a House controlled by Republicans with a 68-32 edge may not be too receptive.
“It’s going to be tough,” Milburn said. “It’s going to be a tough sell.”
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