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GOP budget speeding through Senate


HELENA — Senate Republicans spent Monday making quick work of the GOP spending plan already endorsed by the House, making only small changes despite harsh words from Gov. Brian Schweitzer's administration and the threat of a veto hanging in the air.

A Senate budget committee was finalizing work Monday, mostly rebuffing proposals from Democrats to restore pieces of Schweitzer's original proposal. The governor said he remained hopeful that Republicans in firm control of the Legislature will change their mind.

"I'm optimistic," Schweitzer said. "This isn't my first county fair. I have watched the legislatures come to town and they vote a dozen times one way and when it comes time to brand the calves they turn around and vote the other way."

The Republican proposal cuts spending of state tax money about five percent, while spurning about $120 million in federal money, primarily in social services and programs for the needy. Schweitzer's proposal cuts less, with the help of more transfers from various pots of money controversial with some Republicans, and accepts all of the federal money in question.

The differences may seem small in the scope of a budget that spends about $3.6 billion in state tax money and about the same in federal money, but they are large enough to create a big rift between the Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders.

Senate President Jim Peterson said he doesn't envision big changes once the budget hits the full Senate, perhaps as early as Saturday. But he didn't rule out the possibility that some Republicans will consider restoring spending of federal money on modernization of medical records, which the governor is seeking in one policy initiative.

The quick Senate action, and few expected changes to the spending plan that has already cleared the House, could pave the way for speedy negotiations between the two chambers on a final spending package.

"Then it can go to the governor, and we can see what he thinks," Peterson said.

Peterson said he believes Republicans are cutting spending as requested by voters who gave them big majorities in the Legislature.

"We are delivering what we said we would do," said Peterson, a rancher from Buffalo. "I don't sense any interest in writing checks on money we can't deliver in an ongoing basis."

The Schweitzer administration has called the Republican spending plan "unacceptable."

Peterson says he would love to hash out differences with Schweitzer, but doesn't think the governor is willing to negotiate face-to-face. Schweitzer counters that his agency heads and staff have testified at many committee hearings on the budget, telling the lawmakers exactly what he wants.

"We are seeking a solution here, but I am not so sure the governor just isn't seeking an Academy Award," Peterson said.

Schweitzer is sticking to his budget plan, touting its merits of balancing the budget while increasing education spending and cutting most of a generally reviled business equipment tax.

And Peterson doesn't think he will be negotiating differences with the governor prior to finalizing a budget plan — setting up the possibility Schweitzer will have to either veto the spending bill or accept it.

"At this point, he hasn't been knocking on my door asking to sit down and find a solution, and my door stays open all the time," Peterson said. "In the end, how we do this is going to depend a lot on the governor."


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