Column: Schweitzer budget on life support

2011-03-13T22:15:00Z Column: Schweitzer budget on life supportBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON of the Missoulian State Bureau

HELENA - Not only is Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposed budget being cut, but many of his key budget-balancing ideas are being killed by the Republican majorities in the Legislature in favor of their own ideas.

At this stage, many of Schweitzer's budget-related components are already dead, appear to be flat- lining or likely will soon. These aren't part of House Bill 2, the main spending bill, but help provide the money and legislation to balance his budget and cut some taxes.

The casualty list will likely include his school funding plan, which shares certain oil and gas revenues statewide that now mostly remain in school districts where the minerals are produced. Republicans have their own rival plan that probably will pass.

Likewise, Republicans appear poised to halt Schweitzer's proposal to stop sending state public works grants to local governments for two years and instead transfer the $22 million to the state treasury to help balance the budget. GOP lawmakers want the money to keep going to local governments under the Treasure State Endowment Program.

Similarly, Schweitzer's plan to exempt some businesses from paying property taxes on their equipment but keep the full tax on the largest companies likely will be tabled. Republicans have a rival bill that would lower the tax rate for all companies.

As they have the past three sessions, Republican legislators are killing a series of bills from Schweitzer's Revenue Director Dan Bucks that seek to ensure that nonresidents and out-of-state companies are paying their share of taxes on their Montana property and businesses. In addition, lawmakers have chopped $6.1 million sought by the agency for stepped-up tax enforcement.

If they did pass, the administration says these tax-compliance measures would reap $65.3 million in added revenue over the next two years, with out-of-state residents and businesses picking up 70 percent of the tab.

Schweitzer and Democrats contend the state wants out-of-state people and businesses to pay their share of taxes, just as nearly all Montanans and local businesses do. Republicans contend the department already has sufficient authority it needs, a claim that Bucks disputes.


Schweitzer, for one, is nonplussed by Republicans again turning down the tax compliance bills.

"I guess they can go home and explain why they want taxes to go up for Montanans and taxes to go down for people from Tennessee who are doing business in Montana," Schweitzer said last week. "It doesn't make sense to me."

Before writing off all of Schweitzer's budget-related bills as dead, however, it's important to remember one certainty.

Nothing is ever really dead at the Legislature. Dying bills can be revived on a moment's notice at times with the right number of votes and a pressing need. Or their key parts can be transplanted into other bills.

The Legislature finished its 56th day of work Saturday. Budget issues will dominate the remaining 34 days before adjournment. Many budget-related changes are likely the rest of the session. Schweitzer has said he believes his budget and related proposals will look more appealing to Republicans in the waning days.

Will the Democratic governor have any leverage with the leaders of a House where Republicans have a 68-32 majority and a Senate where the GOP has a 28-22 margin?

As governor, Schweitzer gets the final say on all bills except for proposed ballot issues. He can sign these bills into law, veto them outright, offer amendatory vetoes with suggested changes and offer line-item vetoes to remove certain spending in appropriations bills.

Schweitzer had a branding iron made with his new registered brand, "VETO," and has made it clear he's ready to veto any number of bills.

House Republicans have the needed two-thirds majority to override a Schweitzer veto, but Senate Republicans don't.

That fact gives Schweitzer at least some leverage to broker deals and reach compromises with GOP leaders - and vice versa.

"I think the Legislature always finds its own way," said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, who heads the key Senate budget committee. "The governor may propose, but the Legislature disposes. He's still sitting down there with his branding iron, so the game isn't over."

Schweitzer faces strong GOP majorities, Lewis said, yet "there's been really no effort to build bridges."

Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, said she believes the fate of some of these key bills won't be decided until late.

"I don't think they're dead yet," she said.

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Missoulian State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 442-2598. His e-mail address is


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