HELENA — Gov. Brian Schweitzer delivered an energetic fourth and final State of the State speech Wednesday that highlighted his administration's achievements in everything from coal to schools while outlining an optimistic and aggressive agenda for his last two years in office.
Along the way, Schweitzer poked some fun at Republicans, who have been a constant adversary and now are in firm control of a Legislature that hopes to dismantle much of his proposed budget.
The governor, speaking to a joint session of the Legislature, put the spotlight squarely on jobs and the economy, and cautioned lawmakers against getting distracted with divisive or unconstitutional legislation.
The Republicans, too, put jobs at the top of their agenda. Both sides also share goals of cutting the business tax and reducing the cost of workers' compensation insurance — but they have already begun to butt heads this legislative session over how to do it.
As is typical, the governor remained upbeat. Schweitzer said Montana remains a great place to raise a family and do business, and told lawmakers that Montana workers raising families are busy doing their best to improve their lives.
"Your mission, members of the Legislature, is to prepare Montana for that new day," Schweitzer said. "A day of more opportunity, more freedom, lower taxes, new opportunity, better schools and higher paying jobs."
GOP leaders don't like the way the governor's budget proposal relies on transfers from various pots of money to make ends meet over the next two years. They plan to scale back spending roughly $200 million, making nearly certain there will be cuts to education and programs for the elderly and poor.
"No matter how you spin it, we are spending more than we are taking in and although the future looks promising, the recovery is expected to be slow," House Speaker Mike Milburn said. "We cannot play games with the budget. There are ways the state government can juggle money around to make everything look OK, but it is only a matter of time before that money runs out and the ultimate reality hits."
Republican leaders, in their reaction to Schweitzer, highlighted their plans to ease environmental regulations in hopes of spurring drilling and mining.
Before introducing business leaders in mining, energy and manufacturing, Schweitzer chided Republicans for saying Montana is a bad place to do business.
"If you would like to help us bring business to Montana, help us promote, accentuate the positive," he said.
Schweitzer touted his administration's efforts to attract the gold mining company RX Exploration, coal mining company Signal Peak Energy, wind farm developer Naturener and others. With the introductions, he noted they all found Montana a good place to do business.
Although Republican leaders have not made social issues their top goal, anti-abortion and other such bills are coming forward. And Republicans are proposing several bills that aim to tackle federal unpopular initiatives in ways that some argue are not enforceable at best and perhaps even unconstitutional.
Schweitzer warned Republicans not to consider "frivolous, feel-good bills" or those that "abridge individual rights and choices."
"If you aim for nothing, you will hit it every time," Schweitzer said.
One key budget difference will be school funding, which the governor wants to increase. Part of that will be to freeze college tuition. Republicans say they want to find ways to make schools more efficient, yet better.
"Do not force the burden of tuition increases on Montana families," Schweitzer said in comment clearly directed at Republicans in charge of the Legislature. "A tuition increase is a tax increase."
The Republican response was filled with plans for government austerity and removing perceived regulatory hurdles to business.
"Our state is ranked near the bottom in the U.S. in take-home pay, and one in four Montanans work more than one job," said Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo. "It is becoming all too clear that our business climate is not conducive to helping families prosper and raise their children."
The governor broke ranks from many Democrats and panned the federal health care reform for potentially doubling the cost of the state's Medicaid program. He said Montana must challenge every expense in health care because Washington D.C. didn't.