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It's go time in Helena as news keeps budget fluid
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It's go time in Helena as news keeps budget fluid

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HELENA - Around the Capitol, some lawmakers are talking about the upcoming federal economic stimulus package as if it will be some sort of magic elixir for Montana.

Few details are available yet, but there's no doubt that Montana's economy and the state's revenue forecasts could use a stiff pick-me-up, and we're in better shape than many states. Mostly, we need to get people back to work.

Each day here brings more bad news about workers being laid off, businesses closing, and projects being canceled.

Last week, the Legislature's chief revenue forecaster, Terry Johnson, lowered his anticipated state revenue estimate for this year and 2010 and 2011 by $85 million. That's on top of the $135 million he dropped from it last month.

Few doubt that Johnson will be reducing revenue estimates several more times in the next three months.

Projected revenue dollars are critical as the lawmakers cobble together a state budget for the next two years.

The amount of tax revenue available dictates how much legislators have to spend on state agencies, new programs, pay raises for state employees and tax cuts.

Agencies are hoping, at best, for hold-the-line budgets, new programs are out of the question, state employees have agreed to freeze their pay (except for a one-time $450 bonus for workers making less than $45,000 a year) and tax cuts, although a Republican priority, appear unlikely.

Stimulus dollars could put many Montanans back to work on highway and bridge projects and on energy efficiency projects in schools and government buildings.

No one knows yet how much federal money Montana stands to receive, although legislative leaders and Gov. Brian Schweitzer have heard it may be in the $800 million range.

Across party lines, Montana's part-time citizen legislators agreed they want a voice in how this money is spent and some later oversight.

At a press conference Thursday, Senate and House Republican and Democratic leaders said they have agreed to run any federal stimulus money through the normal legislative appropriation process.

An hour later, Schweitzer said state officials will have little discretion over the money. He told Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City, and House Speaker Bob Bergren, D-Havre, that officials in Washington, D.C., made it clear the money will be earmarked by the federal government.

"State legislators and governors would like to have more flexibility, but I can assure that the language will contain less," Schweitzer said.

Political gamesmanship surfaced last week over the stimulus and revenue drops, and it won't be the last time.

Republicans on some legislative budget committees balked at voting on various appropriations decisions. They wanted to wait until they know more about the stimulus and state revenues. Why make decisions now that may have to be drastically revised later, they asked.

Democrats countered that subcommittees need to start voting now to avoid a later time crunch. Hundreds of votes on budget issues need to be made. Budget recommendations can always be changed later, if necessary, they said.

On Friday, Schweitzer abandoned his earlier position that he intended to keep his distance from the messy legislative swamp. Instead, he dove back in and accused Republicans of stalling on the budget.

Schweitzer said he would start working on individual legislators from both parties to jump-start the budget-crafting process.

Story replied that the legislative process was moving along fine, and lawmakers aren't behind schedule.

Since 2005, Schweitzer's modus operandi has been to pick off individual Republican legislators to help pass his agenda. Schweitzer's latest threat is nothing new, Story said.

Part of what's occurring is setting up the chess pieces for the inevitable blame game - which political party gets the public wrath for making unpopular budget cuts. Or perhaps there will be credit for making the tough budget decisions.

The budget will start in the House, which is tied with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Passing a budget in the House will require at least some bipartisanship.

As the budget wends its way through the process, more information on the stimulus package and projected revenues will be available.

Republicans have the majority in the Senate. Some fear they may get stuck doing the dirty work of cutting the budget if the House passes a bloated budget that needs trimming.

The budget maneuvers on both sides are just beginning.

Charles Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 443-4920 or at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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