A Havre lawmaker said Thursday that, although there are specifics with which she is not pleased, overall she is happy with the budget passed by the Legislature.
“I'm proud that we have actually rolled back government spending,” said Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, a majority whip in the Montana House. “That's quite a noteworthy accomplishment. Our current data shows that we are at least 6 percent less than last session.
“Some tough cuts were made — not all of which I like very much — but we were able to balance the budget without raising people's taxes,” she added. The Legislature adjourned late Thursday after passing a budget compromise in House Bill 2, negotiated between the Republican leadership and Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
In the final Senate vote last night, Sen. Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre, voted to pass HB 2. Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, voted against it. In the final vote in the House, Warburton and Rep. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, voted for the bill. Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, voted against it. The budget has been criticized as cutting too much by some, and as spending too much by others.
The final version returned some $100 million in federal money used in programs for the needy, slightly increases the amount going to K-12 education and returned about $20 million to higher education after Republicans cut $32 million from Schweitzer’s proposal. With the adjournment, Schweitzer cannot send any bills back for consideration with amendments proposed by him. He must either sign the bills into law, let them become law without his signature or veto the legislation.
To change the results of any legislation, other than vetoing it and abandoning the issue, Schweitzer would have to call a special session.
One issue Warburton decried was Schweitzer eliminating $300,000, split over the next two years, for unmanned aircraft systems grants. Montana State University-Northern is part of a consortium working on testing unmanned drones in Montana airspace.
“I am extremely disappointed that Governor Schweitzer took away the money that we had passed, specifically in House Bill 2 for Northern's unmanned aerial vehicles program,” she said. “But, I am very happy that Northern's biodiesel program funding, which we fought hard for, remains in the budget.
“These are impressive, job-building programs that have great potential to help improve our region's economy,” Warburton added.
A $400,000 appropriation split over the next two years for Northern’s biodiesel research had been cut from Schweitzer’s proposal, but then, after furious work by the Hi-Line legislators and other lawmakers, was reinstated with a different source in a different part of the state’s funding.
Jaysen O’Neill, deputy communications director for Schweitzer, said the item the governor cut was grants that were proposed to Great Falls and Lewistown for airport improvements, using Department of Transportation funds.
“As part of the governor's amendments to HB 2, it was not included and is not an appropriate use for the aerial fuel tax receipts,” O’Neill said, adding, “Representative Warburton, Representative Hansen, and Senator Hutton all voted for the governor's amendment.”
O’Neill said Northern’s drone testing never specifically was part of the budget. The funds proposed for the work normally are used for upgrades to and resolving safety issues at airports, he said. Schweitzer supports the universities including Northern, and is open to suggestions on how to fund those projects, O’Neill said.
Warburton said the final budget the Legislature passed was the result of some hard work and difficult decisions. “We've known since last session that balancing this years budget without raising taxes would be tough, particularly with the one-time-only stimulus money to make up for,” she said.
A request this morning for comments on the budget from Belcourt, Hansen, Hutton and Windy Boy had not been responded to by deadline.
Northern funding a mixed issue
The legislation now going before Gov. Brian Schweitzer has some funding for Montana State University-Northern, although some proposed funding did not make it. The proposal includes $20 million more for higher education in general than the original Republican proposal, although it still is less than what Schweitzer originally proposed. Other issues include:
• $400,000 over the next two years for Northern’s biodiesel research is in the budget.
• $300,000 over the next two years proposed for airport improvements related to drone aircraft testing, a consortium for which Northern is a participant, was cut.
• $7.9 million in bond funding for a new auto-diesel technologies building at Northern was added to the state bonding bill, but the bill was killed in the House.