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Committee stalls proposal to spend $56 million extra this year

Committee stalls proposal to spend $56 million extra this year

HELENA — Just as they did a week ago, Democrats and Republicans stalemated Tuesday over a critical government spending measure.

The House Appropriations Committee, evenly divided between the two parties, deadlocked on approving a bill that would provide $56 million for 10 state agencies before the current budget year ends June 30. The same party-line 10-10 vote last week stalled the $7 billion budget bill to finance most of state government for the next two years.

House Democratic Leader Dave Wanzenried of Missoula said he may use a special privilege to rescue the latest measure to hit an impasse before the committee and bring it to House floor for debate, just as he did for the budget bill last week.

But first, he wants to see if he and Republican Leader Roy Brown of Billings can agree on trimming some money from the bill to make it more acceptable to GOP members of the committee.

Neither side seemed willing to budge Tuesday, as repeated efforts by Republicans to remove money hit solid Democratic opposition and failed on tie votes.

"I think we're spending like drunken sailors here, personally," said Rep. Jack Wells, R-Bozeman.

He and other Republicans said the bill is overstuffed with money in an effort to ensure the new budget does not exceed a limit on how much certain government spending can grow. Inflating the existing budget will allow the next budget to be larger without breaking that spending cap, they said.

"This is just absolutely preposterous," said Rep. John Sinrud, R-Bozeman. "This is growth in government beyond what taxpayers' means are."

But Democrats said all the spending proposed in the bill is legitimate and not intended just to reduce the size of the increase created by the new budget.

"We're responding to the needs of the state in a good-faith effort," said Rep. Eve Franklin, D-Great Falls.

"There was no ploy in any of that," Wanzenried said. "Some of these expenses have to be paid" before the middle of this year.

Late Tuesday, Brown said he believes the size of the bill can be decreased to make it acceptable to some Republicans on the committee. "I think we can get something out of it that will appease them," he said.

The bill, which provides "supplemental" funding for government agencies, contains three major proposals.

The largest single expenditure is $16 million to pay off money borrowed to finance a new tax accounting computer system for the Revenue Department.

The measure also spends $9 million to pay the balance owed to the Crow Tribe as part of a 1999 agreement with the state that settled water rights issues and a lawsuit over coal taxes.

A third item gives $8.5 million to cover the cost of settling wage claims filed by hundreds of Montana Highway Patrol officers several years ago.

Those were some portions of the bill targeted by Republicans on Tuesday.

Sinrud argued the state does not have to pay the balance of either the computer system loan or the Crow Tribe commitment in the next 3 1/2 months.

"We can wait, stay on budget and stay on time," he said. "This is just irresponsible spending."

He said the money should not be paid into an account for the tribe until the water rights compact with the Crow is ratified by Congress, the tribe and the state Water Court. The money for the Highway Patrol settlement should be withheld until lawmakers see the court order approving the deal and an agreement signed by both sides, Sinrud added.

Some Democrats pointed out that former Republican Gov. Judy Martz in December was the first to recommend that the tribe and computer loan obligations be paid off in this budget year as a way to shrink the size of the spending increase in the next budget.

Copyright © 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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