ALAN SUDERMAN Associated Press Writer
HELENA A Republican leader gave Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his fellow Democrats an ultimatum Thursday: Sign the GOP’s proposed property tax cut and school funding plan into law, or see state agencies forced to operate on a bare-bones budget for the next two years. “We’ve been nice for weeks,” said House Majority Michael Lange, Rbillings. “Now, we’re not going to be so nice.” Lange said the Republican-controlled House has the power to lower the Legislature’s official revenue estimates for the upcoming years so that state agencies’ funding would stay at their current levels, with a small increase for inflation and operating costs and a few other increases. And they will use this power, Lange said, unless some form of a Republicanapproved property tax relief and education funding bill is signed into law by Schweitzer before the session is over. “Here’s what we’ll do: We’ll cut the revenue estimate so low that all of (Schweitzer’s proposed agency spending increases) won’t happen,” Lange said. “The people of Montana, I would submit, if they can’t get property tax reduction, they are better off if it all sits in a bank.” The bill would have to be law before the session ends, Lange said, to prevent the governor from vetoing any propertytax legislation after lawmakers go home. David Ewer, Schweitzer’s budget director, said Lange’s proposed changes to the revenue estimate would have no practical effect on state agencies. “It means nothing,” Ewer said. “Representative Lange is not able to hold the Legislature hostage by some political shenanigans with the revenue estimate.” Republican and Democratic leaders have been at odds over tax relief all session. Democrats, who control the Senate, want a one-time, $400-per-homeowner rebate. The plan by Republicans would cut property taxes by replacing local school money with state money, which they say is a more equitable way of funding education. The Republican plan was tabled in the Senate last week, and the Democrats’ plan has been gathering dust in a House committee. Senate President Mike Cooney, Dhelena, said he was concerned the Republicans’ plan was not “sustainable” because future governments would not have the $1 billion surplus this Legislature has. He added he prefers the governor’s proposed rebate. “We are not committing the future generations of Montana without knowing what the heck we’re doing here,” Cooney said. “We have said time and time again ... we can give Montanans their $400. We can afford it, and it’s paid for.” He suggested Republicans propose where they intend to get the money to fund long-term tax cuts, and said closing tax loopholes for out-of-state property owners would be a good place to start. “Tell us what the plan is; tell us how you’re going to do it; tell us what programs are not important that you are going to cut; tell us what programs you don’t think are important to the people of Montana; tell us how you’re going to pay for it,” Cooney said. “And that’s what we haven’t heard. That’s not what we’ve heard.” Republicans countered their intentions have always been known, and one of the Legislature’s main priorities should be returning money to the taxpayers. Democrats should be the ones looking for extra funding for their proposed spending increases, said Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton, R-Billings. “Why don’t they have to find new funding resources?” Stapleton asked. Lange said there is room for compromise on the nature of the tax cuts. He said he is willing to discuss excluding property tax cuts for large corporations, which has been a sticking point with Democrats, and points to a bill recently passed by the House that does so. Cooney also said he believes there is room for negotiations and added that he doesn’t put too much weight into Lange’s ultimatum. “Those sorts of threats produce nothing,” Cooney said. “Let’s be reasonable.” The property tax cuts are in House Bills 678, 833 and Senate Bill 139.