HELENA — Soon after the 2011 Montana Legislature convened Monday, top Republican and Democratic leaders immediately began staking out their respective battle lines over state budget issues.
Top leaders of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate called for cutting the state general fund budget by $360 million, or nearly 10 percent, over the next two years to bring the amount of money that the state spends into alignment with what it raises in taxes.
They said it's clear that more government spending has not created more job opportunities for Montanans.
Democrats, however, countered that Gov. Brian Schweitzer's $3.7 billion, two-year spending plan shows the state budget can be balanced without requiring cuts of such magnitude. Schweitzer's budget relies heavily on one-time transfers of money and other funding shifts and counts on a surplus by mid-2013 that is $100 million more than what a bipartisan legislative committee adopted.
The budget debate overshadowed the traditional opening ceremonies in the House and Senate, where new members were sworn in as their families and friends watched and took photographs.
At back-to-back press conferences on Monday afternoon, Republican and Democratic leaders amplified their positions on the budget.
House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, called for the $360 million in general fund cuts from the state budget, but said Republicans weren't necessarily advocating cutting the base budget.
They want to dig into what are called statutory appropriations and special revenue accounts and see if they can find some “outdated programs” that can be eliminated.
Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, was asked what was off-limits from budget cuts.
“At this point in time, everything is on the table,” he said. “Nothing has been ruled out.”
He added later, “Starting out, we're not going to leave any stones unturned.”
Democratic minority leaders Rep. Jon Sesso of Butte and Sen. Carol Williams of Missoula took a different tack at their separate press conference.
“People have asked the Legislature and government to provide a certain amount of core services,” Sesso said. “It will be very difficult to cut the budget unless we cut the services.”
Sesso said he can't agree to $180 million a year, or $360 million over the two years, in budget cuts based on the evidence he's seen.
Williams said Schweitzer had proposed “a good budget” that clearly needs to be considered.
“I think we're headed in the right direction (in Montana),” she said. “I don't think it's going to be as dire as some would say.”
Despite Republicans outnumbering Democrats 28-22 in the Senate and 68-32 in the House, Williams said, “I don't accept the idea that we are a minority in Montana.” She said she thinks public opinion polls show the majority of Montanans support the Democrats' positions.
On the floor of the House Monday, Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said the Legislature must start “harnessing the power of the private sector to put Montanans back to work” and begin “the restoration of our liberties and freedoms.”
He called for revamping Montana's workers' compensation system, which has the highest rates in the nation, working for responsible natural resource development and eliminating the state's property tax on business equipment.
He said Republicans will work “to deliver educational excellence” by establishing the first charter schools in Montana, providing state scholarships for students to attend private schools and requiring tenure review of teachers every three-to-five years.
McGillvray also called on the Legislature to strongly resist “the implementation of Obamacare and bring free-market health care reforms that will address the rising cost of health care for all Montanans.”
Earlier in the House, shortly after members were sworn in, Milburn told fellow representatives that he is not the speaker of one political party, but of the entire House.
He urged members to fight for what they believe is right, “but let's do it with dignity and civility.”
Leaders of both parties in both chambers called for taking steps to improve Montana's economy and putting people back to work.
Milburn vowed that the Legislature would “do things as we've never done before” to train legislators about the budget, hear from private-sector employers about job-creation ideas and dismantling and digging into previously unscrutinized parts of the budget.
In the Senate, Peterson said Montana faces a “fragile economy and an uncertain future,” but that he thinks that, if the Legislature focuses on job creation, it can create a bright future for the state.
Tackling these issues means a tough session, Peterson said, but that he hopes lawmakers can work together “and not fall into the trap of partisan bickering that plagues modern politics.”
Sesso agreed that the key issue is jobs.
“Let's not waste a minute of debate on that,” he said. “Instead, let's stay focused on doing what we can to improve our economy. For starters, I'd suggest we build on what we're doing right.”
Williams told fellow senators that Montanans are counting on the Legislature to pass a budget, carry out health-care reforms and to continue to strengthen education.
“We weren't elected to rewrite the constitution or take away anybody's rights.” she said. “We're not here to change the wonderful environmental laws” passed years ago.