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Republicans on subcommittees holding off on budget decisions

Republicans on subcommittees holding off on budget decisions

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HELENA - Republican legislators on some joint House-Senate appropriations subcommittees are balking at making any preliminary budget decision until they learn more details about the federal economic stimulus package and revised state revenue estimates.

They are defending this decision as the prudent thing to do.

Yet some Democrats are questioning why the Republicans aren't willing to vote on decisions now and, if necessary, revise budgets later as more details emerge about the stimulus and revenues.

This week, on the evenly split joint Health and Human Services Committee, the four Republican senators and representatives have voted as a bloc against proposed budget decisions. As a result, they didn't pass.

"We know there are going to be massive changes in Medicaid (the federal-state health care program for the poor) in the stimulus," said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena.

Although the legislative fiscal staff wanted votes, Lewis said it doesn't make sense to decide on important budget issues until lawmakers have a better grasp of the details of Montana's share of the federal stimulus and what the latest revenue projections will be.

"There are no (political) games," Lewis said.

Lawmakers expect the state to receive $2 billion to $3 billion from the federal stimulus, including money for highway and bridge construction and repair and other projects, as well as an expansion of Medicaid and other human service programs.

But another subcommittee member, Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, disagreed with Lewis' approach.

Wanzenried said he's concerned that if the panel doesn't vote on issues as they come up, the information from public testimony will tend to be dated. It may be six to eight weeks before the state learns the full details of its share of the stimulus, he said.

Wanzenried said he told the panel that if members voted on the decisions now, he would be the first to ask to reconsider budgets later when stimulus and revenue details become clearer.

That subcommittee has about 150 "decision packages," or key decisions, on aspects of the state's health and human services budget.

Meanwhile, at the joint Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement and Justice Subcommittee, the chairman, Rep. Ray Hawk, R-Florence, said he decided as presiding officer not to take any votes on any issues at this time.

Hawk said the committee would still hold its scheduled hearings, but added: "We're just not going to take any votes on anything." He too said he wants to get more details on the stimulus and revenue picture before voting.

Postponing the votes until then is "a cleaner way of doing things" than voting now and having to revise the budget later.

House Speaker Bob Bergren, D-Havre, said updated state revenue numbers will be available soon, and they have nothing to do with the economic stimulus bill, which he refers to as a jobs bill.

"Let's get the business done," he said.

He questioned why Lewis would hold up passage of a routine pass-through of federal money to the state and called it a political decision. On the other hand, Bergren said he didn't think Hawk's decision was political.

Bergren said he doesn't want to see stimulus money put into the state budget to free up general fund money for other uses because it is one-time-only money. The budget two years from now will be based on the budget this year, and one-time money won't be available.

However, Senate Finance and Claims Chairman Keith Bales, R-Otter, defended what his fellow Republicans have done.

"We should hold off making budget decisions until we have more information," Bales said. "We didn't have the information we needed to make a valid decision on how much to put in."

His House counterpart, Appropriations Chairman Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said he doesn't get "too excited about a decision one way or the other in any subcommittee" because he respects the legislators' work.

He said subcommittees dealing with human services, corrections and education have numerous decisions to deliberate over. However, Sesso said he believes some other subcommittees that are reviewing general government and natural resources budgets "can move forward with the lion's share" of their decisions.

The subcommittees have about 25 working days to make their budget recommendations to the House Appropriations Committee.

Legislative Fiscal Analyst Clayton Schenck acknowledged the Legislature faces some budget and revenue uncertainties.

However, he said the subcommittees are under "real tight" schedules, and "they can't afford to let things slip too far."

Gov. Brian Schweitzer's budget director, David Ewer, declined to comment.

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