MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA The state’s $7.9 billion spending plan was blasted by some Republicans as excessive and unsustainable when the Senate advanced the biggest budget pieces on Friday. Democrats backed the spending level, saying it is appropriate given the state’s $1 billion projected surplus and buoys services cut back during years of flagging state revenue. The main budget bill was endorsed Friday on a 30-20 vote and includes state and federal money for roads, social service programs, colleges and most areas of government. The chamber also endorsed on a 33- 17 vote a budget for schools that represents about 20 percent of overall state spending and has enough money in it for a new all-day kindergarten initiative that has yet to be approved. Critics said total spending in the budget bills doesn’t include other funding sources that balloon total spending to $9 billion or enough for about $10,000 for each Montanan. “How can we expect Montana’s private sector to haul this kind of load and keep chugging along carrying this kind of government?” said Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman. “Somewhere along the line we lost control of this process. It is completely out of control.” He said Republicans and Democrats alike are “in a mad race to see which party can buy a majority vote in the next election.” Republican Sen. John Cobb of Augusta defended the budget, saying only $3.2 billion comes from state taxes while the rest comes from the federal government. He said the state taxes represent only about 6 percent of Montana’s overall economy. Spending of general state tax money increases about 11 percent each of the next two years under the plan working its way through the Senate. A final vote is scheduled Saturday. Another Republican who supports the main spending bill said it represents the best compromise. “I’m going to vote for this budget because this is our process, this is the legislative process,” said Sen. Rick Laible, R-Darby. “Did we all get everything we wanted? No, we didn’t.” Senate President Mike Cooney, Dhelena, said it pays for important initiatives such as freezing university tuition at current levels, and programs for seniors and children. “Where are we spending too much money?” he asked. The K-12 budget going through the Senate is slightly larger than sought by the governor and spends about $1.3 billion in state money, and totals $1.6 billion with federal money. Democrats fought back an attempt to scale back the all-day kindergarten portion, which has been a key initiative for Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Critics said the school funding level is not enough to halt an ongoing court fight over the constitutionality of the state’s system of paying for schools. Sen. Roy Brown, R-Billings, said senators are not leaving enough room for permanent property tax cuts. “When the economy starts choking on the spending we have done over the past two sessions, what are we going to say then? Are we going to say I guess we need to raise taxes now?’” he asked. Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, responded that Democrats are making up for years of GOP leadership that cut taxes for the wealthy and left many budget areas deficient. “We make no apologies about doing that,” she said. The main budget measures are House bills 809, 818-820.