MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA Republicans successfully pushed their budget bills Thursday toward a full House vote, where they face a very uncertain future in a sharply divided chamber. Democrats stood unified against the measures in key committee votes, sticking with their strategy to oppose the GOP’s alternative to the Schweitzer administration budget they prefer. Democrats plan to use the same strategy on floor votes on the bills, scheduled for next week. Republicans will need all 50 of their members to support the measures, along with the vote of the lone Constitutional Party representative, if the Democrats won’t bend. The chamber is divided 50-49-1. The GOP budget bills increase state spending by about 13 percent over the next two years a sticking point for conservatives. But the measures do cut millions from Schweitzer’s budget requests. On Thursday, the final four of the GOP’s six budget bills were approved on party-line votes by the House Appropriations Committee. The bills spend about $240 million less in tax dollars than the governor’s budget offering. Democrats argue the measures fail to provide enough money for a fast growing prison population, voluntary all-day kindergarten and other important issues. They also are upset that the bills break with 30 years of budget tradition by completely dismissing the governor’s offering. Fiscal conservatives are likely to demand even more cuts if GOP leaders advance the bills above Democratic objections. House Majority Leader Michael Lange, Rbillings, said he is preparing for that possibility. Constitution Party Rep. Rick Jore of Ronan is one of the conservatives left holding all the cards. He said state spending will have to be cut markedly for him to support the bills. In addition, Jore won’t support federal money in the education and social service budgets a huge part of the way the state pays for those programs. “In my view, they are playing to what I want to do,” he said. “Those bills are going to have to go down, down, down to get my vote.” Jore said he hasn’t decided exactly how much spending would need to be cut to get his vote. But he said the 13 percent spending increase over two years currently in the GOP budget measures is too much. Republican Rep. John Sinrud of Bozeman, the appropriations committee chairman who helped craft the budget bills, said “it’s all going to come down to compromise.” “The question is will (Jore) work with us on it,” Sinrud said. He said the Democrats have employed a strategy that seems to “cut off the nose to spite the face.” “But they have drawn a line in the sand,” Sinrud said. “That’s OK. That’s their prerogative.” He said he won’t pressure any of his caucus members to vote a certain way, as he believes Schweitzer is doing with Democrats. Instead, Sinrud said they will work through the budget cuts on the floor in a series of amendments. “We are going to have to do what we need to do to get them out of here and over to the Senate,” he said. The Republican budget bills are House bills 804-809.