HELENA – The Legislature decided Wednesday to take a break until next week as Republican leaders await the governor’s response on the main budget bill, which Schweitzer said is woefully lacking.
It was not easy to tell exactly what the sticking points may be, with each side giving differing opinions on the matter.
And as Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer both appeared increasingly farther apart, the possibility loomed that no budget deal could be reached in the five remaining working days the Legislature has left to complete its sole constitutional duty. That could lead to a later special session at the governor’s call to wrap up the business.
“We’ll get it done,” House Speaker Mike Milburn said. “When, I don’t know.”
Schweitzer said Republicans have failed to give him a complete spending plan by failing to advance companion bills, such as one that provides for an increase in school funding done primarily by making oil-and-gas rich eastern counties pay more of their own way in order to free up money for other schools.
He criticized them for wanting to take another “spring break” rather than do that work, while Republicans said they were withholding them as part of negotiating.
The GOP budget plan spends a little less in state money than Schweitzer originally proposed, but also abandons about $100 million in federal money for programs largely aimed at helping the needy and elderly.
The governor criticized Republicans legislative leaders, who took a long break last weekend, for taking another without sending him an education funding measure.
“So we’ll just wait to see what the next move it,” Schweitzer said. “I just don’t know how this is going to work.”
Earlier Wednesday, House Republican leaders rallied votes to kill a small pay increase for state employees sought by Schweitzer. House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray called it absurd to consider any raise in the rocky economy. The proposal failed Wednesday in a 60-40 vote.
Schweitzer argued shortly later that employees have been working under a pay freeze for too long. At a 45-minute press conference Wednesday, he implied he won’t let the vote stand.
He said state workers care for elderly people, plow roads, keep criminals behind bars and deserve a 1 percent raise next year and a 3 percent raise the year after, as he negotiated with union leaders. Schweitzer said it was the first time in decades the Legislature has bucked a negotiated pay deal.
“I don’t think it’s done yet,” Schweitzer said, making it clear at a news conference that he expects the issue will be back. “I am still of the old mindset that a deal is a deal.”
Schweitzer also said lawmakers need to send him the bonding proposal that would build $100 million worth of projects around the state, including a new state museum in Helena and college buildings. He argued it would create construction jobs in every part of the state.
Although it has so far passed the steep hurdle required to get two-thirds support at various stops, conservative House leaders have slowed a final vote on the bonding package that would be paid back over the next 20 years.
Milburn said the pay raise is the key sticking point. But Schweitzer said many other issues remain, topped by a funding plan for K-12 schools currently locked up in an internal Republican dispute.
Republican leaders said they felt they were close on a deal that called for Schweitzer rewriting House Bill 2 in a way that both sides agreed to. This would allow them to simply vote in favor of accepting the “amendatory veto.”
But Wednesday, the Republicans were less certain and said they were done talking with the governor’s office. Instead they simply planned to wait for his response that must be made by Saturday.
Part of the problem seems to stem from the two sides having dramatically different takes on the economic picture in the state.
Republicans rejecting the pay raise bemoaned double-digit unemployment in some counties while businesses are failing and homes are being foreclosed. Schweitzer argued that farmers and ranchers have enjoyed high grain and cattle prices along with record yields, while the mining industry has been showered with rising prices for its products, and the tourism industry has seen lots of visitors.
At one point in a news conference, Schweitzer said he would rewrite the Republican budget plan and send it back for an up or down vote. Later, he said it could be an outright veto, a much more problematic scenario for lawmakers who would have to start from scratch in budget committees with almost time to do so.
“I don’t think talks have broken down,” Schweitzer said. “It is complicated. This is not just buying a horse. This is buying a ranch with all the equipment.”
Milburn said there are enough Republicans in the GOP’s 68-32 House supermajority willing to hold out until they get the budget cuts they promised voters last year — even if the governor makes good on threats to call them back in the middle of the summer in a special session if the job isn’t finished now.
“I’ve got people here who want to do it right and will do anything it takes,” Milburn said.
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