By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The Legislature is on track to spend so much money that the state would violate a 24-year-old law limiting the growth in government spending, and that has lawmakers already facing the prospect of trimming the proposed budget.
Legislative staff estimated Wednesday the pending budget, with the 90-day session less than half over, contains $60 million more than allowed under the spending restriction. And that number could be closer to $100 million when human service programs are included, they said.
Democrats, who control the Senate and share power with Republicans in the evenly divided House, said they will reduce spending if necessary to comply with the law.
''The bottom line is if we have to cut some things, they're going to get cut,'' said Sen. Mike Cooney, a Helena Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.
However, some Democrats suggested this may be the time to update the aging law and make some changes that could exclude certain types of spending to give legislators more leeway.
For example, the restriction could be rewritten so it would not include spending authorized by voter-passed ballot measures, such as the 2004 initiative that increases tobacco taxes by $30 million a year and mandates the money be spent on health care programs, said House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosie Buzzas, D-Missoula.
Republicans said the law doesn't need adjusting. Instead, the Legislature should rein in its planned spending for the next two years, they argued.
''We want to go through each one of the (agency) budgets and cut them back,'' said House Republican Leader Roy Brown of Billings. ''We have no intention of changing the law.''
Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, said Democrats are in a tight spot because they will be hurt politically if they tinker with the law to allow the higher spending or simply ignore the limit. If the Legislature adjourns in late April after passing a budget in violation of the law, citizens will propose and pass a ballot measure to force a special session for redoing the budget, he predicted.
''The people who are in charge - the Democrats - have a problem and they need to deal with this,'' he said.
House Democratic Leader Dave Wanzenried of Missoula and Senate President Jon Tester of Big Sandy questioned whether legislative staff know for sure what the spending limit is and how far over the budget is now.
''I don't think it's concrete enough,'' Tester said. ''It's like a bowl of jelly, wiggling all over the place.''
If spending needs to be shaved, Wanzenried said one solution would be to ax a bill that proposes spending $60 million on various building construction and maintenance projects around the state.
The 1981 law, which applies only to certain kinds of state money, prohibits spending from rising more than the increase in Montanans' average personal income between two three-year periods preceding a legislative session.
In this case, personal income in the state grew by 8.5 percent between 2001-02 and 2002-04. That allows a $350.4 million increase in certain types of spending. However, the budget already contains a $410 million increase, according to the Legislative Fiscal Division.
A key subcommittee working on the big human services budget has yet to act, but its spending plan could add another $40 million to the equation.
Wanzenried said lawmakers confront spending decisions daily and need to determine quickly just how much the budget misses the mark. ''We may well be beyond the limit. If we're over it now, we don't want to be adding to it,'' he said.
Keenan said the Legislature's dilemma is posh finances. With a projected surplus of about $300 million to spend after facing a $232 million deficit two years ago, ''there is so much money available that we are going to potentially overspend,'' he said.