GOP Leaders, Schweitzer Say Budget Deal is Close

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – House Speaker Mike Milburn and Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Thursday that headway was being made in budget talks, but there is no deal in place yet as the governor tries to rewrite the Republican offering by Saturday.

Schweitzer said he has been holding more discussions with Milburn and Senate president Jim Peterson than any other legislative leaders he has worked with in the past.

Milburn said the two sides seem close to reaching an agreement in terms of the total amount of state general tax money to spend in 2012-2013. He also said there is agreement on a crucial school funding proposal, and a key non-budget issue of regulating medical marijuana.

But differences remained in the amount of federal money the state takes for social programs, a small pay increase Schweitzer had negotiated with state employees and other areas.

“I still feel positive that we are going to be able to reach a deal, or conclusion, in the middle of next week,” Milburn said.

Schweitzer must act on the Republican budget proposal by Saturday. He had 10 days from receiving the budget to veto; sign; let it become law without his signature; or rewrite a bill.

The GOP offering spends a little less in state tax money than he originally envisioned, but cuts in areas he favors like higher education. It is incomplete in how it deals with school funding.

Schweitzer has also been critical of the way Republicans abandoned $100 million in federal money for programs largely aimed at the needy.

The Legislature is on a recess until Tuesday, carefully saving their five remaining working days they are constitutionally allowed to meet.

If Schweitzer rewrites the budget in a way GOP leaders agree to, it will be simple for lawmakers to accept the changes and finalize companion bills next week. If lawmakers have to make changes of their own, there is still enough time as long as Schweitzer agrees they are OK and signs the bill.

If not, then lawmakers say there won’t be enough time for an alternative plan, which would necessitate a special session later to do another budget. Both sides say they want to avoid that.

Milburn, in control of a 68-32 Republican supermajority in the House, said he has to hold firm in some areas, such as rejecting the pay raise for employees. Many of the most conservative members of his caucus felt the original GOP offering spent too much in the first place.

“In the end, I have to have the votes to get whatever I present back out of here,” Milburn said.

Milburn said talks are close enough to a deal that Schweitzer will have comfort knowing his rewrite will be accepted by Saturday. He said the compromise will still be a conservative budget.

“Progress is certainly being made,” said Milburn, a rancher and former Air Force pilot from Cascade.

Schweitzer, who cut state spending by 5 percent through executive order last year, said negotiations have a lot to do with the mechanics of wrapping up a budget through a governor’s rewrite before key companion bills are completed.

“Really the sticking point more than anything else is that the Republicans themselves have not decided what the education funding bill will look like, which by itself is one-third of the budget,” said Schweitzer. “I don’t know what food is in the kitchen, how do I write a menu? Both Mike and Jim know that, they understand that, we are trying to work our way through that.”

Schweitzer, who in his second and last term is overseeing his last regular legislative session, said the key figures on both sides are having good talks.

“Everybody is out of town except for the principals, and we are in constant communication trying to get this all worked out,” Schweitzer said. “In this legislative session, I have met with President Peterson and Speaker Milburn more times for more time for more fruitful discussions than any of my previous sessions.”

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