MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s budget director faced Republicans on Monday, the start of a two-week long showdown over partisan spending plans, and told them that their budget offering may be illegal. David Ewer said the governor opposes the GOP plan “on its content, its legality and its process.” Democrats have argued that the Republican plan departs from 30 years of budget tradition, which is referred to many times in law and in the state constitution. Changing it risks legal challenge to the budget, they argue. Ewer said the governor’s budget was carefully crafted to provide tax relief, large reserves, and increases in government programs he said are needed to make up for years of cuts. “It cleans up the mess we inherited,” Ewer told the House Appropriations Committee. He said the governor is dealing with overcrowded prisons, a broken pension system, a school system declared unconstitutional by the courts and other problems. The House is holding hearings this week on the six different Republican budget bills that are replacing the Schweitzer budget, which was essentially killed when it was tabled in a Republican-controlled House committee. Republicans said they are not only trimming the governor’s budget, but introducing a new process that shifts budget power from the governor to lawmakers in the House. The Republican offering frees up more money for tax relief. “The sky is not falling. Every single agency still receives an increase,” said Rep. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, who is carrying one of the GOP budget bills. “We can play politics, or we can get on with the work of the people.” A tense morning hearing, focusing on the first budget bill that pays for such agencies as the Department of Commerce and Department of Environmental Quality, saw sparks fly largely over procedural matters. “This is a political process that gets ugly at times,” Ripley said. “To get into conflict is not going to benefit anybody, or any side, or any election.” On advocate, seeking more spending in the Department of Health and Human Services budget, chastised both sides for arguing about the process. “It does not matter to me if we have one budget bill or six budget bills,” said Linda Stoll, with the Montana Area Agencies on Aging. “What matters to me is what is in the budget.” The six Republican budget offerings increase state spending $420 million to $2.95 billion. The governor is seeking a total of about $3.2 billion. Democrats plan to fight the GOP through committee hearings that run through the week, and in later floor votes that run through next week. Democrats want the House to revive Schweitzer’s budget before the plans are sent to the Democratically controlled Senate. The Schweitzer administration testified that big differences between the two budget plans appear in the details, such as plans by Schweitzer to expand the agencies that review building permits to speed up the process and improve economic expansion. “This (Republican) bill guarantees that the Department of Environmental Quality’s work will be slowed down,” said Richard Opper, the agency’s director. Ripley disagreed, saying the agency should be able to do the work with resources it already has. “I do not believe it will be slowed,” said Ripley, who believes more employees are unnecessary. “The process is more of a problem than the personnel.” Republicans also pitched their plans for the Department of Health and Human Services, which takes up the biggest share of the increased spending. The GOP budget provides more money for areas like mental health, while shaving administration plans for more methamphetamine and prisoner treatment. Ripley’s bill is House Bill 805. The DPHHS budget is House Bill 808. The governor’s budget is House Bill 2.