Schweitzer seeks AG opinion on July 1 state government shutdown

2011-04-11T18:08:00Z 2011-04-11T22:45:12Z Schweitzer seeks AG opinion on July 1 state government shutdown

By CHARLES S. JOHNSON

Gazette State Bureau‌

The Billings Gazette

HELENA — Gov. Brian Schweitzer, preparing for a potential government shutdown on July 1, asked Attorney General Steve Bullock Monday for a legal opinion on what the state’s obligations are if the Legislature fails to pass what he deems “a reasonable budget.”

“Unfortunately, this request is not a mere hypothetical exercise,” Schweitzer wrote Bullock. “I believe that the ruling (Republican) party in the 62nd Montana Legislature intends to continue on a path that will not produce a reasonable budget that I can sign during the regular session.”

In response, House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, said, “The governor has had ample opportunity to weigh in on the Legislature’s fiscally responsible budget. Republicans will simply not support a plan that spends more than it takes in. Any shutdown of state government will be due to the actions of the governor, not the Legislature.”

Schweitzer, a Democrat, has been highly critical of the budget that the GOP-controlled Legislature is about to send him and has threatened to veto it. The budget covers the two-year period that begins July 1.

“People need to start planning in advance for that eventuality,” Schweitzer said in an interview. “I’m hopeful that we’re able to finish that work. But I would be remiss in my duties if we didn’t get advice as to what could remain open and what could not.”

Schweitzer’s letter comes at a critical time. Monday was the 80th legislative day of a 90-day session. Both the House and Senate took preliminary votes approving the compromise version of the House Bill 2, the major budget bill, which the Republican-controlled conference committee recommended last week.

In his letter to Bullock, Schweitzer said the Montana Constitution prohibits paying any money out of the state treasury without an appropriation made by law.

“Without a state budget in place July 1, 2011, employees must be furloughed and programs must cease providing services,” Schweitzer said.

He asked Bullock for a legal memo defining such key terms as “essential services,” “essential employees” and “essential payments” and for a full analysis and conclusion as to “which employees, payments and services would remain in place as ‘essential.’ “

Schweitzer requested that Bullock address such shutdown questions as:

What employees should be retained at state prisons, Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs and Pine Hills School for Boys or the Montana National Guard in the event of a shutdown?

Can Highway Patrol officers be kept on duty?

Are there powers that allow him to soften financial losses to the state that would occur if state parks, museums, the lottery, state liquor stores and drivers’ license stations are closed?

Are there extraordinary steps that he may take to prepare the thousands of state workers who will be furloughed from “nonessential” programs?

If a shutdown occurs, will the state have the ability to refuse payment to the thousands of vendors that do business with the state? On which contracts may the state withhold payment?

Are rent payments to the state’s landlords considered “essential” payments that must be made?

Schweitzer said in an interview that a possible government shutdown raises questions of whether state liquor stores would be allowed to be open.

“What do I do with the prison?” he asked. “Do I let the medium security (prisoners) out and let the National Guard in to oversee maximum security?”

On a related topic, Schweitzer announced that he would hold a ceremony on the north side of the Capitol at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday to veto more than a dozen bills with his “VETO” branding iron.

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