MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA The partisan wrangling over taxes, schools and state spending escalated Thursday, with Republicans finalizing budget plans they said will change the way the Legislature does its work. The GOP budget plan, unveiled in a midday ceremony, raises state spending about 14 percent over two years, House leaders said. They said it stands as a reasonable alternative to an estimated 22 percent spending increase in the governor’s proposal. “There are no cuts,” Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman, said of the GOP offering. “Every budget (area) gets an increase in spending.” Democrats countered that Republicans are recklessly remaking the budget process nearly halfway through the legislative session for partisan gain, leaving too little time for public scrutiny. “These matters are not a game. They are the fundamental business of the people,” said House Minority Leader John Parker, D-Great Falls. The GOP unveiled its six budget bills less than a week after an unprecedented move to kill the governor’s budget proposal. Lawmakers normally refashion the executive offering in one bill, rather than write a new one. “Today is a day of historical significance,” House Speaker Scott Sales, Rbozeman, said. “It’s our hope as Republicans that we are going to bring back a level of accountability to the budget process.” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he won’t sign any of the bills until he receives them all together. “What I do have to have is a balanced budget,” he said. “I’m scratching my head trying to figure out how this is gong to work, because I can’t balance it one bill at a time.” Shortly before the GOP’s budget press conference, a House committee endorsed a $400 million Republican plan to cut property taxes and replace local taxes for schools with state money over Democratic objections that the state does not have the resources to sustain the proposals. Democrats alleged Republicans had completely redone the budget behind closed doors, without the normal scrutiny given to cuts to the governor’s budget. “The process of secrecy is not cutting it,” Parker said. He said contents of the proposed education budget remain unclear, and added it appeared the GOP didn’t give enough money to the state corrections system dealing with an increase in prisoners, drug initiatives, economic development programs and other areas. Schweitzer said financial projections in the GOP proposal don’t match up with work done by his staff and others. “Who drafted these bills and where did these numbers come from?” he said. “Who is the author of these ideas? What is the public process that got us to this level?” Other Democrats suspected the Republican rollback in the budget was aimed at forcing Democrats to increase it, so that Democrats can be labeled as spenders. Some said it was politically aimed at embarrassing the governor. “That’s a lot of hooey,” Lange said of speculation surrounding the move. He said the new budget bills, one for each area of government, lets lawmakers vote yes on the pieces they like, while opposing others. Lange said they have been forced in the past to hold their nose and vote for one big bill just because it had some worthwhile programs in it. In the end, Lange predicted coalitions of Republicans and Democrats will surface in the House to increase spending in such popular areas as education and social services even above levels sought by Schweitzer. “And then you will start seeing some compromise,” Lange said.