message to Havre
Havre Daily News
Republicans have left the 2004-2005 legislative session with some concerns about spending decisions made by a Democrat-controlled Senate and evenly split House. House Republican leader Roy Brown of Billings came through Havre on Wednesday as part of a two-week trip around the state he called the "Montana Taxpayers Tour."
The state will increase its budget by $1 billion over the next two years to $7 billion, Brown said, something he worries is not sustainable.
The money came from a mixture of federal dollars and a $250 million budget surplus, as well as a $1 cigarette tax increase that took effect Jan. 1. Republicans had advocated that $40 million of the surplus go back to the taxpayers and $20 million be reserved for additional education spending in the second year of the biennium.
Ideally, an extra $60 million savings would have come from cutting every increase just a little bit, something Republicans tried but failed to get support for in the last days of the Legislature, Brown said.
Democrat leaders in the Legislature have said the spending increases amounted to bringing back necessary programs that had been cut by Republicans in the past decade.
Brown said the education community also expected more progress on its issues. The Legislature, responding to a state Supreme Court decision, redefined what constitutes a quality education in Montana but didn't overhaul the way that education is funded by the state.
The Legislature allocated $34 million extra for schools this budget year and $43 million for the following year. An interim committee charged with devising a new funding formula met for the first time Wednesday to begin setting goals and a time line.
"The education community is not too happy," Brown said. He said new money went into an old funding formula and education spending grew less than funding for corrections, natural resources and health and human services, which grew the most.
"The Democrats have been saying for 10 years just put us in power, we know how to fix this," Brown said. It's not fixed yet, he said.
Brown also talked about measures that got bipartisan support, such as the new definition of a basic quality education, as well as anti-crime measures, such as one that makes it harder to buy ingredients used to make methamphetamine, and another that imposes harsher sentences on repeat drunken drivers. Both sides of the aisle showed support for strengthening the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks' block management program, which helps make public lands accessible to citizens, he said.
But Brown said he is worried that in order to sustain a larger government, taxes might need to be raised in the future, something he said Republicans were able to prevent even when the state was facing a budget deficit.
He noted that a recent report from the state Department of Revenue said tax revenue may be higher than expected.
"There is more money coming in. That's good. That means the economy is good," Brown said. "I think that proves what we've been doing as Republicans in the past decade has finally come home to roost."
The message of Brown's tour is largely cautionary because Republicans were on the defensive this year, he said. Republicans' biggest victories were in defeating further spending increases, he said.
"It's difficult to go on offense when you're shorthanded," he said. "If you can stop some bad things from going on, that's a success. That's what we did."
Brown's tour is focusing on smaller communities this year, he said. He is meeting with Republican legislators and community clubs throughout the state. Brown stopped at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation Wednesday to answer questions about ethanol and discuss a resolution encouraging better support of economic development on Montana's Indian reservations. In Havre, Brown spoke to the media and met with Hill County Republican Party leader Brad Lotton.