Bullock Rebuts GOP Complaints of Big Budget Hikes

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock reframed ongoing state budget talks Wednesday to portray Republicans as the big spenders, and said that he would look closely at abolition of the death penalty if it reaches his desk.

Bullock made the comments Tuesday in his first general press availability since taking office in early January. The governor focused most of his attention on recent news that Senate Republicans want to keep the total budget increase — including federal money — at about 2 percent.

The GOP recently criticized Bullock’s budget for increasing spending by 13 percent. That figure includes new federal money for expanding Medicaid, Bullock’s proposed $400-per-homeowner tax rebate and other issues.

But Bullock said those numbers don’t tell the whole tale.

He pointed out that spending of state money under his two-year budget proposal only increases 1.9 percent in state agencies — including his planned employee pay increases and pension fixes. Bullock said that increase matches with the stated goal of the GOP.

The Democrat pointed out the first agency approved by lawmakers was their own — which the Republicans granted an 11 percent increase. Republicans and legislative staffers have said the increase backfills for a cut made in 2011, pays for increased health care and covers other costs.

Bullock also said Republican measures still percolating in the Legislature would increase state spending, across the board, nearly $640 million.

He issued a warning to lawmakers still in the process: “You’ve got to be careful in pointing a finger, because there is always a few pointing right back at you.”

The comments mark the first time that Bullock has really mixed it up publicly with Republicans. He has so far shown a preference to quietly work behind the scenes with the lawmakers.

Bullock said he maintains good relationships with both lawmakers from both parties. He thinks Republicans will ultimately agree with major initiatives, such as the expansion of Medicaid primarily paid for with money from federal health care reform and his proposal to spur construction jobs with $100 million in new education facilities.

Bullock unveiled a proposal Wednesday to increase the number of Montana workers required on contracted government projects from 50 percent to 75 percent.

“I’ve had great conversations with Democrats and Republicans in leadership without regard to partisan label,” he said.

But Bullock, who has not vetoed any bills yet, said he “has no doubt” that day will come.

“If I have my preference, I probably wouldn’t be vetoing any bills, but I recognize that legislators come in with their own views on what is best for government and best for the state,” Bullock said. “And when my views don’t agree with them and we can’t dissuade them beforehand from rethinking what they are doing, I am sure there will be a share of bills that I will either send back or say, ‘I don’t think is in the best interest of the state.'”

The Legislature is still in the early days of re-crafting the governor’s budget proposal, negotiations that really don’t intensify until near the end of the 90-day session.

Bullock left the door open to abolishing the death penalty if the Legislature passes such legislation, although he said he “personally favors” the use of it in certain cases. Bullock said he would “take a close look at the bill” if it passes.

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