MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA Senators say they will start working on the state budget even though they have been handed a version that has a $3 billion hole in it. House leaders said they still have no deal to move a social services spending bill, which has been locked up in a partisan fight since last week. And the Senate made no promises on what it will do with the remaining pieces of the budget. “We are going to have to deal with whatever comes our way,” Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena, said Thursday. “I think we will begin to get this process back on track.” The Senate, controlled by Democrats, plans to start budget hearings today. It is possible they could cram the roughly $3 billion Department of Public Health and Human Services into one of the other seven budget bills produced by the House, leaders said. The House is bogged down in a fight over the new GOP budget process, and little headway on that issue was apparent Thursday. House Republicans have not been able to even put together a DPHHS bill that their entire caucus supports. And House Democrats have locked up in opposition, trying to force GOP leaders to bring back Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s single budget offering, known as House Bill 2. Cooney said he has no plans to urge Democratic colleagues in the House to change their votes on the DPHHS budget and give the Senate the final budget piece. House Majority Leader Michael Lange indicated for the first time Thursday that he may be willing to bargain on House Bill 2 if Democrats would commit to GOP plans for permanent property tax cuts. The offer throws another wrinkle into a budget battle overshadowed by increasingly tense partisan differences. “There’s always room for talk,” Cooney said on tax cuts, noting Democrats overwhelmingly prefer Schweitzer’s proposed $400 rebate for resident homeowners. The Senate’s top Republican, Minority Leader Corey Stapleton of Billings, said Republicans are focused one issue: carving enough money out of the budget to pave the way for bigger tax cuts. “Our Alamo is permanent property tax relief,” he said. Senate Democrats held a news conference Thursday aiming to put a fresh spin on the fight. They promised to inspect the House GOP budget offerings in lengthy hearings to reach bipartisan agreement on spending levels, “so people in Montana will be proud again with what the Legislature is doing with their budget,” said Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula. But they did not rule out the possibility of ultimately rejecting the House spending bills. And they agreed their preference would be to get a “consolidatEd budget,” such as House Bill 2, because the multipart bills have become bogged down. “I don’t see it has provided anything except to muddy up the process,” Cooney said. “I don’t think it has proven to be anything but a problem.” House Republicans, in an effort to protect their multi-bill strategy, have started writing “contingency” language into other bills sought by Schweitzer, including one to fix a deficit in the state pension fund. The language acts as a poison pill, voiding the other bills should the Senate kill certain GOP budget bills. The seven budget bills that have cleared the House generally increase spending over current levels, but not to the levels proposed by Schweitzer. Even though the Senate is going to start work on the separate budget bills, House Democrats said they will keep up their fight. “The House Democrats have never wavered in our commitment to a consolidated budget,” said House Minority Leader John Parker, D-Great Falls.