By SUSAN GALLAGHER/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Gov.-elect Brian Schweitzer on Tuesday released his two-year state budget proposal, asking the Legislature to authorize an increase of some $57 million for public schools, a leading issue in the legislative session that opens next week.
Schweitzer, to be sworn in Monday as Montana's first Democratic governor since Ted Schwinden left office in 1989, quietly unveiled what he called his ''New Day budget,'' echoing a theme from his campaign.
His fiscal 2006 and 2007 budget drawing on the general fund, state government's main operating account, calls for spending about $2.95 billion over the biennium.
On its face the budget compares with a $2.91 billion plan recommended by departing Republican Gov. Judy Martz. But the Legislative Fiscal Division said Tuesday the difference in the spending proposals actually is greater, because the Schweitzer budgetmakers moved some expenditures from the next biennium to the current one.
Schweitzer would end the next biennium with a pot of money almost 50 percent below the $150 million Martz proposed.
''We think that is sufficient for adequate protection,'' said David Ewer, his budget director.
Incoming Senate President Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, hailed the Schweitzer budget as an example of the new governor's commitment to ''the kitchen-table needs of hardworking Montanans.''
A leading House Republican, Roy Brown of Billings, said he had not seen the budget and could not comment.
''It's going to take some time to go over it and see if it makes any sense,'' Brown said.
Eric Feaver of the MEA-MFT teachers union said Schweitzer's proposed increase in school funding is ''a beginning.''
Ewer said the budget requires no new tax legislation. Support for additional spending is based on projected increases in revenue from existing sources, he said.
Ewer said the issue of pay raises for state employees remains to be addressed. Most were denied raises in the first half of the current biennium and are scheduled for 25-cent-an-hour increases in January. Martz proposed raises of 3 percent in fiscal 2006 and 3 percent in 2007. Ewer said the Schweitzer administration wants no less and will offer a proposal Monday, the first day of the legislative session.
State pay is among myriad issues awaiting the Legislature, but the one that looms largest is funding for public schools serving children in kindergarten through grade 12. Martz proposed a $27 million increase for public schools. Schweitzer added another $30 million, most of which he said should go to elementary education.
The Legislature will convene for the first time since the Montana Supreme Court found the current system of funding education inadequate and unconstitutional. The Legislature now must produce a new funding plan.
The overview for Schweitzer's budget says its provisions for education are ''within the financial constraints'' facing the Schweitzer administration. There is no suggestion the proposals are enough to satisfy the court entirely, the overview says.
Schweitzer wants to commit $1 million a year for compliance with Indian Education for All, the statutory requirement that school children learn about the cultural heritage of American Indians. Martz proposed spending about $250,000 a year.
Schweitzer also designated an additional $1 million in fiscal 2006 and $1.5 million in fiscal 2007 for tribal colleges, with part of the money being used to detail tribal history for the state's use in meeting Indian Education for All requirements.
Also in the proposed budget is nearly $10 million to help low-income families pay utility bills and weatherproof their homes. Other proposed outlays for social services include new state money for the foster care, as federal support declines.
Schweitzer said preventing tobacco use should be the highest priority in spending tobacco money, whether it is from the higher tobacco taxes voters approved or from settlement of the state's lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
Using money from the latest increase in tobacco taxes, Schweitzer said the Children's Health Insurance Program can be ''enhanced'' with $7 million during the biennium. He said he wants to expand CHIP insurance to another 3,000 children, a 27.5 percent increase in the program.
Schweitzer also proposes that in 2006, a $20 million economic development trust fund be established within the state's coal severence-tax trust fund. Money earned by the new account would be earmarked for economic development, and the account would grow with a portion of the coal-severance tax going into it over 20 years.
He also proposes tax incentives for the film industry, to increase its presence in Montana. Additionally, he wants $500,000 a year to restore and expand the ''Made in Montana'' program; $500,000 a year to market Montana as a place to do business; and $500,000 a year to enhance economic development on Indian reservations.
Schweitzer also wants to give the Revenue Department $500,000 annually to employ six more auditors, one additional lawyer and a support staffer, all working to reduce fraud involving personal income and corporate license taxes.
In other proposals Schweitzer would:
Increase the budget of the governor's office by $189,000 a year, including $70,000 in additional money for travel.
Increase budgets for the governor's official airplane and residence, the latter in anticipation of ''many functions and public activities, often requiring additional security, moving and other logistical expenses.''
Spend $250,000 a year to establish and maintain a Montana office in Washington, D.C., with the staff working to promote the state.