Governor, Republican Leaders Announce Budget Deal

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer held a rare joint news conference with Republican legislative leaders Friday evening to announce a breakthrough in budget talks, with both sides signing documents promising to stick to a deal that was hailed as a hard-fought compromise.

Schweitzer, a Democrat who has sometimes driven past Republican legislative leaders to the point of frustration, shook hands with Senate President Jim Peterson and House Speaker Mike Milburn on a budget package that gives both sides a little and ensures a speedy wrap to a legislative session marked by strong differences.

A key sticking point had been Republicans’ refusal to accept about $100 million in federal money for social programs largely aimed at the elderly, poor and disabled — such as the Big Sky Rx program that helps seniors buy prescription drugs. All of that money will be accepted under the compromise, Schweitzer said.

Peterson said the budget does cut spending of state tax money, known as general fund spending. That had been a high priority for the GOP.

The Legislature reconvenes Tuesday, and both sides expect the budget deal will be quickly finalized.

Schweitzer will be issuing an “amendatory veto” of the Republican budget submitted to him 10 days ago. The leaders will take that to floor votes in each chamber and promise not to make any further changes.

“Every word in that amendatory veto has been agreed to by the three of us,” Schweitzer said.

Both sides said long hours have been spent each day negotiating. The Republican legislative leaders were seen earlier Friday huddled with a small group of staffers, going over details, as the rest of the Legislature was sent home on recess Wednesday to allow for the leaders to talk at length.

Specifics were bare late Friday. Neither side knew exactly how much of the critical general fund money the budget would cut compared with Schweitzer’s original proposal.

Detailed analysis was expected to be available Monday.

But Peterson said the general fund spending for the budget that will cover July 2011 through June 2013 would be reduced 6 percent from the current spending period.

“I feel like we have reached a good compromise,” said Peterson, a rancher from Buffalo. “I am hoping that next week will be a short week and we can all go home.”

Schweitzer has taken his fair share of shots at the Republican-led Legislature, such as taking a hot cattle brand reading “VETO” to a slate of GOP bills he called “kooky” and labeling the body “bat-crap crazy.” And Republicans have often been less than enamored with Schweitzer — sitting with almost no applause through the State of the State Speech he delivered early in the session.

But both sides were mostly smiles Friday night.

“We were able to get some things we wanted and in the end the governor was able to get some things he wanted,” Peterson said.

Both sides said key companion bills — led by a bill that provides for small increase in K-12 funding in part by forcing gas-and-oil rich eastern Montana districts to share excess funds — will be quickly moved out of the Legislature next week.

Milburn said he was even going to resurrect for another vote a small pay increase Schweitzer negotiated with state employees. But Milburn said amendments could be expected, such as one tying the increase to proof that state revenues are increasing rather than declining.

“I think in the end we have a good product,” Milburn said. “It’s been hard work, but it’s been civil.”

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