HELENA — Majority Republicans at the 2011 Legislature took their first major step Tuesday on crafting the state budget, voting to chop some $300 million from Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposals for the next two-year period.
Leading Republicans said the votes, taken along party lines Tuesday morning in legislative budget subcommittees, are merely a starting point for the session-long budget debate, and that lawmakers now will examine programs more closely to see how spending might be adjusted to match up with tax revenue.
"It isn't like we got some wild idea on how to cut the budget," said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, who chairs the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. "This is how it works."
Yet the move brought howls of protest from some Democratic lawmakers, who said the broad motions set a floor that slices spending beyond what's needed and before detailed budget hearings are held.
"This is really unnecessary," said Rep. Trudi Schmidt, D-Great Falls. "It's too soon to make any drastic cuts. It's premature. ....
"Why this, when we have a balanced budget (proposed by Schweitzer)? It is unbelievable. If you were concerned about the citizens of this state, you wouldn't be doing this."
The vote effectively set state general fund spending for the next two years at $3.45 billion, or 8.25 percent less than the $3.76 million proposed by Schweitzer.
The amount also is slightly below the $3.52 billion that the state expects to spend during its current budget period, which ends June 30.
Over the next several weeks, legislative budget panels will examine each agency and program budget, deciding whether to add back some spending from the floor set on Tuesday, Lewis said.
"Our intention is to go through the process of cutting these budgets back, adding (money) back and balancing the budgets to the (anticipated) revenue," he said.
Asked if Republican leaders were making a political decision by cutting the proposed budgets now so they can add money back later, instead of the opposite, Lewis said "absolutely."
If state revenue trends improve with an improving economy, as Schweitzer has projected, "the (Republican) leadership will tell us what to do, whether to tighten the belt or loosen it."
As it stands now, lawmakers have set projected revenue for the next two years at $3.58 billion, or about $130 million above the spending floor set Tuesday by Republicans, which control majorities in the House and Senate.
Lewis acknowledged that some programs, such as the Department of Corrections, probably won't be able to absorb the reduction adopted Tuesday. That $130 million can be used to add back spending to those that need it, he said.
The difference also could be set aside to finance tax cuts or credits.
Tuesday's action adopted 5 percent cuts proposed by state agencies as a contingency plan, which is required by state law to be submitted.
However, David Ewer, the governor's budget director, said those cuts are "not our recommendations; we don't support them."
Ewer said Tuesday's vote was not needed, and that Schweitzer has submitted a budget that is balanced and doesn't invoke the unnecessary cuts contained with the Republican's motion.
"We made a proposal; we stand by our budget," he said. "We think it provides the level of public health, public safety and public education that Montana needs."
Schweitzer and Ewer have said that the revenue estimates adopted by the Legislature so far are much too low and that a rebounding economy will provide enough revenue to finance the governor's budget, without cutting education and other vital programs.
During budget committee meetings Tuesday morning, Republican chairmen echoed the message that the spending floor is just a "starting point" in budget discussions.
"It's a lot easier to add money back to the budget than on the 40th day (make cuts)," said Rep. Don Roberts, R-Billings, who chairs the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services.
Democrats, however, said the Republicans' first move puts many programs at risk of drastic cuts that aren't needed.
"This motion will wipe out programs and will significantly affect jobs in the private sector in our own communities, as well as affect very low-income people," said Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena.
HELENA — Republicans started scaling back budget expectations Tuesday with proposed cuts across state government — from schools to nursing homes — in a move aimed at making it easier to reduce state spending as lawmakers hash out spending plans.
The early move provided a roadmap for the Republican majority's budget plan, which was trashed by Democrats as unnecessarily austere compared to Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposal.
The GOP starting point approved Tuesday is 8 percent less than the administration's proposal, although the Republican leaders expect to ultimately hand Schweitzer a budget in April that is 5 percent less than his original proposal.
Tuesday's move also showed what kind of programs could be on the chopping block — including foster care, various disability services, money hospitals and doctors rely on to serve the poor and mentally ill, base school funding and much more.
Schweitzer's administration said the move was unnecessary since it proposed a constitutionally balanced budget. Democratic lawmakers said further cuts force the poor, elderly, mentally ill, school advocates and others to beg over the next few months for the relatively small amount of money the GOP plans to add back into spending.
Republicans don't like the way Schweitzer proposed balancing the budget by transferring money out of various state funds, even if it does cut taxes while increasing education funding. The governor argues revenue will increase to match spending faster than currently projected thanks to an improving economy.
The impact of the starting point was unclear even as Republican lawmakers were pushing it through various subcommittees. Staff members had yet to analyze how much federal matching money would be abandoned if the cuts are enacted in the end.
The Republican move would effectively place overall state spending at $3.45 billion over the two-year budget period, analysts said. But GOP leaders are ultimately aiming for an overall spending level of $3.58 billion to match predicted tax revenue over the next biennium — giving them flexibility to add about $130 million more into agency programs or tax cuts in the coming months.
In the current budget period that ends in June, the state is expected to spend about $3.52 billion.
The Schweitzer administration budget proposed spending about $3.76 billion, or roughly $183 million more than what the GOP is targeting in the end.
Negotiations over the final figure will first go to subcommittees meeting over the next few weeks. Republicans in charge of those committees want members to look for even other specific areas that could be cut in order to find extra money that could be funneled into higher need areas, such as some of the social services for the elderly and disabled, said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena.
"The process is very painful," Lewis said. "You have to do it in the context of weighing one issue against the other."
Advocates and others will be all jockeying for that $130 million to restore their favored program.
Some important programs would be gutted under Tuesday's action, said Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
"It would be absolutely devastating to Montana," she said. "Why would you cut money if you know you are going to put it back in? Especially when it is people you are talking about. You are scaring them."
Schweitzer administration Budget Director David Ewer said Tuesday's move, and the cuts ultimately planned by the Republican majority, may shift as time goes on.
"It is early. The legislative process is going to go through a lot of gyrations and we respect that," Ewer said.