A move by Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration to freeze a bunch of money spent on local projects came under fire Wednesday as lawmakers started looking at a budget situation that has prompted the governor to consider widespread cuts. Republicans said that the Schweitzer administration overwhelmingly targeted rural counties with GOP lawmakers when it recently decided to hold back spending on $3.5 million in grants to local governments. "Of course that's what it was," said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena. "The majority of it is rural counties with Republican lawmakers." The Schweitzer administration countered that the $3.5 million in local government grants are simply the ones that happened to be on the table when it decided to freeze such spending. It said the situation is the same as a similar amount of money in historic preservation projects. Budget Director David Ewer said the freeze could be temporary and was not a partisan move. He pointed out that much larger outright cuts previously announced by the administration for local spending targeted projects in such places as Great Falls and Wolf Point, hardly Republican strongholds. "The austerity measures are all over Montana," Ewer said of Lewis' criticism. "I don't think that argument holds any water." And Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, a Democrat, pointed out that one of the biggest local projects on the list — $320,000 for a road in Missoula — goes to her hometown. "I do think what the budget office is trying to do is to make sure we are proactive," Williams said. "I do think it's appropriate." The money is not considered part of the roughly $40 million in budget cuts that Schweitzer's budget office is recommending. But if left unspent for the rest of the year, lawmakers said it would revert to the general fund for the next budget period. Williams said Republicans who oppposed lots of infrastructure projects with the stimulus spending are being hypocritical by now critizing money not spent on infrastructure. At the same time, she agrees it is Unfortunate that infrastructure projects that could create local jobs are now in limbo. "I hope if things look better in the spring and summer, if things do look better, we can go ahead with these projects," she said. The local government grants come from state money freed up with the federal stimulus funds. Although not directly federal money, critics said its intent was to create jobs as part of stimulus project planning. Lewis, the Republican, said it would be much better to cut the money from state government than freeze spending on projects meant to build the economy. "These are jobs in rural Montana," Lewis said. "I would pick cuts in other areas." Overall, Gov. Brian Schweitzer is considering a plan to cut the budget by about $40 million as a way to make sure the state doesn't run into a defecit next year. A legislative committee looks at the plan in detail over the next two days, and could offer comment. On Wednesday, a leading economist told lawmakers that the economy is slowly rebounding, but budget issues for state government will take longer to resolve. "If you are looking at the economy to come back to normal, it is a new normal. It is a slow normal," said University of Montana economist Patrick Barkey. Lawmakers are eying 2011, when they will have to set a new budget. Some projections show that cuts to current programs may be steep in order to adjust for reduced tax collections. Tea Party activists held a rally outside the Capitol calling for larger budget cuts than the 5 percent Schweitzer is considering. Ultimately the governor could decide to cut up to twice that amount, but any more and he would be required to call the Legislature into session — a move that very few lawmakers are advocating for at this point.
State freeze on local money draws GOP criticism
Published: Thursday, March 4th, 2010
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