HELENA — When the House Appropriations Committee takes up the major budget bill this week, Chairman Walt McNutt, one of Montana’s most respected legislators, will be front and center.
It’s not a usual role for the unassuming Republican from Sidney, who is finishing his fourth and final session in the House after serving four sessions in the Senate.
He’s scheduled four or five days of hearings on House Bill 2, starting Wednesday. The budget is likely to be heavily debated on the House floor, starting March 10 or 11. Six budget subcommittees already have made preliminary recommendations to the full committee.
McNutt said his goal is to produce a budget that appropriates less money than was spent two years ago and prioritizes what government “really needs to do.”
Republicans want a bill that is “structurally balanced,” in which ongoing spending for two years doesn’t exceed the ongoing revenues or taxes collected, he said. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed budget isn’t structurally balanced and relies on some one-time transfers to balance the budget.
The chairman emphasized that Schweitzer’s budget is only a recommendation, just as the budget coming out of the House committee will be, along with that approved by the full House.
“Our overall goal is to try to prioritize and fund the absolute things that we need to fund, and they’re in three areas — education, corrections and health and human services,” McNutt said in an interview last week.
“And we know there are going to be some reductions and there probably are going to be some painful reductions in the health and human services arena. You know, we can’t take Grandma out of the nursing home and not Uncle Ned. We have got to take care of seniors as best we can while maintaining our hospitals, especially in rural Montana.”
Although preliminary cuts have been made to K-12 and higher education budgets, McNutt said Republicans, led by Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, are working to redo the K-12 funding formula.
“In the end, I’m confident we’re going to fund education adequately, both higher and K-12, and that there will be some further adjustments to the health and human services section as we work through the process,” McNutt said.
The budget emerging from the Republican-controlled House is likely to change Schweitzer’s budget, he said.
“We definitely were not enamored of the governor’s budget,” he said, admitting he has “heartburn” over “the raid of rural Montana money.”
Schweitzer’s plan would take $76 million in oil and gas tax money going to schools in counties where the minerals are produced and share it with schools statewide. It also would transfer to the state general fund more than $18 million in Treasure State Endowment funds intended for local water, sewer and bridge projects.
McNutt said the Legislative Fiscal Division has come up with a more conservative estimate of anticipated revenues than Schweitzer’s budget office has. The estimate ultimately settled on will determine how much money can be spent.
“We’re being accused of being too conservative,” McNutt said. “In business, when you do a budget, you do conservative things, because we don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring. ... I think the economy is recovering, but it’s a little spooky when you have to look out to 2015 to achieve the revenues you had in 2007 and ‘08.”
House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, appointed McNutt, who has owned implement dealerships, to head House Appropriations, arguably the key chairmanship in the House.
“He’s a man of strong convictions and has the courage and common sense to deal with some tough budget issues during this time when our state is experiencing a deficit situation,” Milburn said. “His business acumen is above reproach.”
House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, held the Appropriations chairmanship two years ago, when the House and all of its committees were evenly split between the two parties. He said he built up a great relationship with McNutt, who was the Republican vice chairman.
“He has exhibited the same even-handed fairness to us this time, and I can’t be more thankful,” Sesso said. “I think Appropriations is running smoothly this time thus far, and a lot of the credit has to go to Walt. It’s a tough hustle from my experience to run that committee. He’s made every effort to keep us informed of the actions that will be taken.”
Quiet, reserved and maybe even appearing a little gruff to those who don’t know him, McNutt has never sought the spotlight and until this year hadn’t spoken from the floor much.
“If you don’t get past the gruff exterior, you don’t find out what a warm and considerate man he is,” Sesso said.
This session, however, McNutt, the House’s senior Republican, has spoken out and helped kill bills by GOP colleagues when he thought they went too far. One bill would have required a woman seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound procedure. Another would have forced a couple with young children to undergo 10 hours of counseling before getting a divorce.
Perhaps his signature moment on the House floor this year came on a “state sovereignty” bill from the GOP’s Tea Party wing that he was unable to stop.
McNutt said he hadn’t been active politically when some Sidney-area residents recruited him to run for the Senate in 1996. He had been on a number of boards in Sidney, where he owns an implement dealership and now a mobile home park.
“I entered the arena with little or no knowledge of what takes place up here and got very little training when I came in,” he said. “It’s not like today.”
Instead, McNutt said he was mentored by a number of Senate veterans from both parties before they were barred by term limits from running again.
A Wyoming native, McNutt moved to Montana at age 17 and graduated from Great Falls High School. He and his wife, Karen, worked while attending college in Great Falls and raising their two daughters. He was a salesman and eventually a co-owner of an implement dealership in Choteau. During tough agricultural times, International Harvester encouraged him to move to Sidney to open a dealership.