Lawmakers Finish Late Thursday with Budget Cuts

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Montana Legislature wrapped up a noisy legislative session late Thursday with a package of bills the Republican majority touted as a unique spending cut compromise that includes a small tax cut for businesses and a funding scheme that keeps basic education mostly whole.

Minority Democrats lambasted the session’s budget measure as ill-considered and falling woefully short in paying for needed services on everything from programs for the poor to higher education.

The Legislature completed its business by finalizing votes on the budget compromise that few adored, a school funding deal described only as “adequate” by some backers and lauded by others, and other measures that aim to pay the state’s bills for the next two years.

Republican Rep. Scott Reichner of Bigfork, who was tasked with finding compromise on the flagship proposal to reduce worker’s compensation rates by at least a third and find money to hold K-12 funding about the same, said he thinks the successes of the session will trump the noise caused by controversial issues that mostly fell by the wayside.

“Hopefully overshadowing that is that the state of Montana citizen Legislature works,” said Reichner. “I think we can go home showing a good bipartisan budget. “It’s a good, good success of the Legislature.”

Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer negotiated the budget deal with House Speaker Mike Milburn, a Republican rancher from Cascade, and Senate President Mike Milburn, a Republican rancher from Buffalo. It was a rare event where legislators took a recess prior to adjourning in order to negotiate a budget deal with the governor. Traditionally lawmakers finalize a budget, adjourn and drop it on the governor’s desk.

And despite some high-profile fights, the Republican majority adjourned with two days to spare out of the 90 they are constitutionally granted to complete their business.

But legislative Democrats were not impressed.

They criticized the budget deal cuts as unnecessary, pointing to indications that show revenues are improving and coming out of the recession dip. They said cuts to higher education will lead to tuition increases, and stale K-12 help will force some school districts to attempt to raise local property taxes.

The Democrats also criticized Republicans for undermining, or attempting to, citizen initiatives that previously expanded a children’s health insurance program and banned cyanide gold mining.

“We were defending the best we could for people who came here and asked us to stand up for them,” said Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula. “I think to the extent we were able to, we did those things.”

But the final days were dominated by budget talks.

Overall, the budget compromise hatched by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Republican legislative leaders reduces spending of state tax money by 6 percent from the current two-year budget period.

Spending of that “general fund” money comes in at about $3.6 billion under the budget deal. The overall budget that is dominated by an infusion of federal money for programs such as Medicare, education, and road construction — but also includes special sources of money such as hunting licenses or other fees — puts total spending at about $9 billion under the two-year plan that starts funding government in July.

Milburn was forced to rally his 68-32 majority of Republicans in that chamber to muster 51 votes in favor of a budget compromise that restored federal funding for social welfare programs aimed at helping the needy that the GOP tried to cut by about $100 million. Key companion bills were the focus Thursday, prompting the speaker to ask his Republicans in a morning caucus meeting to stick with their leadership plan.

The proposal to hold school funding about steady by forcing some eastern oil-and-gas rich districts to turn over surpluses then passed by razor-thin margins. It was scaled back in final negotiations, leaving school advocates grumbling that it falls short and does nothing to fix a complex school funding scenario.

“It is not everything I wanted, but I believe it is adequate — and only adequate — but it is the best we can do. I am hoping that next session we can do much better,” said Republican state Sen. Ryan Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL from Whitefish. “I hope the future of education is a stable, predictable funding source so we don’t have to do this every session.”

Republicans also touted their completed bills to roll back environmental laws in an attempt to speed natural resource development, ensure utilities have eminent domain power in a way that helps a stalled power line in north-central Montana running to Canada, and reduce the business equipment tax generally regarded as too high.

Minority Democrats employed a strategy over the final days to oppose all of the Republican-led proposals — including the budget — in a hope that fiscal conservatives and tea party advocates would refuse to go along with any of the spending measures out of ideological purity. And although many of those ardent fiscal conservatives did oppose the plans, enough went along with their leadership to muster majority votes.

That left Democrats with no leverage in seeking ratification of a small pay increase for state employees and a $100 million bonding program to spur the construction industry with new building projects around the state.

“Our ability to get anything done on those issues relied on Republican leadership not being able to get anything done,” said Rep. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula. “In the end, that didn’t happen. The Republican leadership had enough discipline in their caucus.”

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