HELENA — The Legislature inched closer to approving a session-ending budget package Wednesday, moving within one vote of giving the final OK to a deal negotiated with Gov. Brian Schweitzer on the major budget bill.
But lawmakers stumbled on at least one piece of the budget puzzle and the House barely endorsed a key school-funding measure, setting up what could be a long, obstacle-strewn slog to the finish line on Thursday.
"Hopefully, if we go forward, by tomorrow we'll have all the pieces together," said Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, as he debated the budget bill on the floor of the Senate.
Democrats also indicated Wednesday they have little or no intention of helping majority Republicans pass the necessary bills to complete the budget picture, saying the budget shorts education and cuts government merely for the sake of cutting.
"That was an insidious, insidious argument all this session about not having the money," said Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula. "We could have built our infrastructure. We could have paid for our schools. We could have funded the University System."
Nevertheless, Republicans, who control majorities in both Houses, appeared within reach of the goal outlined by their leaders Wednesday: Approve the necessary budget measures and wrap up the 2011 Legislature by Thursday.
On a 55-45 vote, the House Wednesday morning gave final approval to the amended version of House Bill 2, as negotiated late last week by the Democratic governor and Republican legislative leaders.
Later on Wednesday, the Senate endorsed the budget deal on a 28-22, party-line vote, with Republicans in favor, setting up a final vote in the Senate today.
Yet other action Wednesday left lawmakers with some substantial work undone, and perhaps only one day to do it:
• The House rejected a bill that contributes $9 million toward balancing the budget, by transferring money to the state treasury from a variety of other earmarked funds. House members later revived the measure and set up another vote on House Bill 316 today.
• The House voted 50-49 to approve the session's major school-funding bill, which slightly reduces state funding for public schools this year and increases it next year — and also takes $18 million in oil-and-gas revenue from selected school districts in eastern Montana to help balance the budget.
A final vote in the House on Senate Bill 329 is scheduled today, and the Senate has yet to vote on the bill.
• Another budget puzzle piece, House Bill 604, which has more than $50 million in fund transfers to balance the budget, also awaits action in a conference committee.
• Two other measures pushed by Democrats failed to gain approval Wednesday, and face an uphill battle: The bill granting a raise to state employees next year and a bill with $100 million worth of state building projects, advertised by Democrats as a jobs bill.
A day after voting it down for a second time, the GOP-controlled House refused to consider the pay-plan bill Wednesday, and also fell five votes short on approving House Bill 439, the bonding measure — although it agreed to hold another vote on HB439 today.
The most heated debate of the day came in the House over the school-funding bill, as representatives from Eastern Montana's booming oil patch blasted SB329 as an ill-conceived money-grab of oil-and-gas revenue that should continue to go to school districts to help pay for impacts of the boom.
"You ought to really consider what you're doing here," said Rep. Walter McNutt, R-Sidney. "And once you get this started, where is it going to stop? I think this is blatantly unfair. ... This is a poor way to go about funding schools and putting money in the (state treasury), and I suggest you think twice before you do it."
Yet Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, said taxpayers in western Montana have been transferring their property-tax wealth to Eastern Montana schools for years, and that the bargain struck in SB329 takes only a portion of the oil-and-gas money and leaves some eastern districts with huge, untouched reserve funds.
"They don't have to bond for any school (buildings); they just write a check," he said. "They want a new school, they write a check. ... I think this is a fair assessment."
The measure passed 50-49, with 49 Republicans and one Democrat — Rep. Bill McChesney of Miles City — voting for it, setting up a final vote today. Rep. Sterling Small, R-Busby, was absent for the vote.
Democrats in the Senate also ripped into the budget deal negotiated by their own governor, saying they still weren't sure what it contained, and what they did know of it, they didn't like.
"I have never agreed to a contract until I know all the terms of the contract, and I don't know all the terms of this contract, because some of them haven't been determined yet," said Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda. "I'm voting no until I see some further progress on these issues and others."