MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA The alternative budget being worked up by House Republicans slices requests from the prison system, social programs and other areas, according to an early analysis of the plan. Programs such as energy assistance for the poor or elderly, the governor’s business recruitment office, tribal economic development, methamphetamine treatment and many other initiatives fall under the budget knife, according to the Legislative Fiscal Division analysis. House Majority Leader Michael Lange, R-Billings, said the preliminary offering will change, and could eventually include more money. “This is a starting point,” he said Tuesday. In all, nearly $100 million is sliced from agency budgets that lawmakers had been working on before House Republicans voted last week to kill the governor’s budget. The proposed GOP budget also reworks the state’s school funding system to pave the way for a property tax cut worth more than $300 million. The House minority leader said the initial look at the GOP budget plans raises many concerns, including the possibility the state won’t have enough money to house prisoners. Rep. John Parker, D-Great Falls, said he is also worried about rollbacks in economic development initiatives. “We need these programs to move Montana’s economy forward,” he said. Work on the state budget has been particularly tense this legislative session, with the state looking at a projected surplus of $1 billion over the next two years. The governor submitted a plan late last year that included $150 million in tax relief, including $400-per-homeowner rebates, along with increased spending on education, corrections and other areas. An analysis of the Republican alternative, based on a draft of the budget, shows Republicans cutting back in a number of areas to make way for tax cuts. They are seeking more than $400 million in total tax relief. Lange said the Republican budget will go to committee in early March. And when it moves to the floor, he said many of the areas will see big spending increases. The Department of Corrections, seeking more money for an expanding prison population and new programs aimed at reforming prisoners, would be among the hardest hit, the analysis of the current plan concluded. The GOP budget plan cuts $39.3 million, nearly 12 percent, from the budget lawmakers had been working on before last week. Corrections director Mike Ferriter said he remains in support of Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s budget offering. He said it is too early to speculate what the agency would do with its prisoners if the budget was cut substantially. “We are still focused on the governor’s budget. We have presented a very balanced approach to corrections,” Ferriter said. “We think that provides for a safer Montana.” The Department of Commerce was cut by 40 percent, or $8 million. A big chunk also comes from the Department of Public Health and Human Services budget, which was shaved $30.1 million, or 4 percent. The Republican budget is being proposed in a package of bills, instead of the traditional offering of one bill to pay for state government. Democrats allege the tactic will lead to a confusing array of votes that could cause programs to fall through the cracks. “I’m concerned about the lack of public participation,” Parker said. “This substantive change in our process runs the risk we will not be able to wrap up our work in 90 days.” Lange said the old bill, called House Bill 2, will not be resurrected, as many Democrats have hoped for. “This is what they are going to get,” he said. “I have pretty firm resolve in that regard.” Once the House finishes work on the budget, it will go to the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats who prefer Schweitzer’s budget proposal.