GOP Leaders Optimistic Budget Deal Could be Near

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Monday they were optimistic the framework for a budget deal was not far off, even as lawmakers hash out tough issues such as school funding and a big bonding bill for state buildings.

Both sides cautioned, however, that it was premature to talk about the details.

Lawmakers said they would like to wrap up their work before the weekend, with the budget the biggest piece remaining and the only one they are constitutionally required to complete.

Legislative leaders said there were still issues to be hashed out in the coming days with the Democratic governor, who has not been shy about vetoing bills so far.

Schweitzer, who last week ceremoniously torched representations of many Republican bills with a hot cattle brand reading “VETO,” said conversations between his office and Republican leaders have been cordial.

“There is no deal or anything like that yet. But there have been very good conservations between leadership and my office and we are also very hopeful we can put something together sooner rather than later,” Schweitzer said. “We all need to recognize there are ways of making government more efficient. Yet we all recognize we have a responsibility to the least fortunate, education and public safety.”

The GOP budget proposal already sent to the governor is about $130 million less than Schweitzer proposed in terms of spending state tax money. The governor has made a larger issue publicly of the way the GOP plan abandons about $100 million in federal money for social programs largely aimed at helping the elderly and needy.

House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, said conversations with the governor’s office have been going well, and he believes there is a preliminary framework that could meet the needs of both sides. However, he said everything was still on the table.

“I think there is some hope that we have reached some common ground and could get this wrapped up this week,” Milburn said.

Both sides agreed the fastest way to a deal would involve the governor issuing an amendatory veto of the GOP budget plan now on his desk. That would allow the governor to rewrite that budget to reflect any deal that is reached and would only require a simple affirmative vote in each chamber.

An outright veto of the budget bill would force lawmakers to start at the beginning with budget committees crafting a new budget.

“I’m cautiously optimistic, but I wouldn’t say we are there yet,” said Senate President Jim Peterson of Buffalo.

Any deal will require give and take, and leave few claiming victory, he said.

“All of this requires some difficult choices,” Peterson said. “I can’t say that anyone will walk away at the end completely happy with everything, and that may be what it actually takes to get there.”

Republicans are still dickering among themselves over school funding.

A joint House-Senate panel charged with wrapping up the issue only met briefly Monday with House Republicans advocating less spending and saying K-12 schools should take cuts like every other area of government. Senators are more supportive of a plan that funds schools close to what Schweitzer envisioned, and borrows some of his method of taking excess funds from oil-and-gas rich districts in eastern Montana.

Other big issues are in play but are less likely to be a part of any final deal.

A $100 million bonding program supported by Democrats and many Republicans, thanks to strong advocacy from contractors and other business groups, took a step back in the House amid concern from ardent fiscal conservatives.

It looks to be headed to a negotiating committee. The bonds would fund new building at colleges around the state, along with paying for a new state museum in Helena and other projects, to be paid back over 20 years.

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