HELENA - The Obama administration and Congress are likely to give state lawmakers little voice in deciding how to spend federal stimulus money, Gov. Brian Schweitzer told the Legislature's top two leaders Thursday.
"This money is going to arrive, and it's all going to have a little (ear)mark on it as to where it might go," he told Senate President Bob Story, R-Park City, and House Speaker Bob Bergren, D-Havre.
Schweitzer, who spent several days in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President Barack Obama, said he discussed the federal stimulus package with a number of officials there.
"State legislators and governors would like to have more flexibility, but I can assure that the language will contain less," Schweitzer said. "They have no interest in just pouring money out there. They want to target the money."
The Democratic governor also urged legislative leaders not to slow down appropriations subcommittee hearings. Republicans on some panels don't want to make budget decisions until they learn more about the stimulus and get updated state revenue projections.
Schweitzer also cautioned the leaders against spending one-time federal stimulus money on ongoing state programs to free up other state money for other ongoing spending. He called that "a fool's mission" that could lead to bankruptcy.
Although no figure for Montana's share of the federal stimulus has been set, the Schweitzer administration and legislative leaders have heard that the state may receive nearly $800 million. It is intended to create jobs and put Americans to work.
"Anybody who thinks the money is going to arrive as some kind of a block grant has been smoking pine cones," Schweitzer said. Federal block grants give states a great deal of discretion in determining how to spend money.
Schweitzer said the Obama administration will put specific language in the stimulus bill detailing how money must be used. Congress will add its own restrictions, he said.
"Probably every thermostat that is put in every school in Montana will have a different congressman's name on it," Schweitzer said. "That's how specific this is going to be."
If Montana doesn't follow the federal rules, it will have to send the money back, he said.
The Obama administration and Congress will send specific money for specific programs, he said. These include retrofitting state buildings to make them more energy-efficient and improving highways and bridges. Some federal money will go for expanded unemployment programs, Medicaid and children's health insurance and child care.
Story called Schweitzer's report "very encouraging."
"I think we agree wholeheartedly the money needs to get in the process, needs to get out there and needs to be spent on the types of things that improve our infrastructure, improve our buildings so we have reduced costs in energy," he said.
Bergren agreed, saying: "Whatever role there is for the Legislature, we're ready to go to work."
Schweitzer called on budget subcommittees to get on with their decision-making instead of waiting for more information on the stimulus and state revenues.
"Additional information will continue to come in," he said. "There's not going to a drop-dead point where we have all information."
Replied Story: "A little patience in this will probably go a long way. It's a whole lot easier to put things in in March than it is to take things out in April."
At a bipartisan press conference earlier in the day, the chairmen of the Legislature's budget committees agreed that they want to get the projects going as soon as possible, with minimal red tape.
"We want to be sure we are going to get these jobs on the ground," said House Appropriations Chairman Jon Sesso, D-Butte.
"The reality is it is coming," said Senate Finance and Claims Chairman Keith Bales, R-Otter, of the stimulus.