HELENA -- Republicans at the Legislature handed Gov. Brian Schweitzer their proposed $3.6 billion state budget Wednesday and then decided to take a four-day break, while the Democratic governor mulls whether to veto the main budget bill.
“We need to buy a little time to think through everything,” Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said late Wednesday afternoon before announcing that the Senate would recess until Monday. “Frankly, we’re waiting for some response from the governor on House Bill 2.”
Schweitzer, however, said Wednesday afternoon from his Capitol office that he can’t even consider acting on HB2 until he sees the half-dozen or more “companion bills” that direct certain spending within HB2.
“The vehicle is unconstitutional; the vehicle is incomplete,” he said. “I can’t do anything without the companion bills. There’s not a lot to discuss.”
Most of the companion bills have been sent to House-Senate conference committees that will meet next week and possibly hammer out final details on the measures so they can move to the governor’s desk. However, Schweitzer has said he thinks some of those bills are unconstitutional, too, and should be vetoed.
The clock now starts ticking on HB2, as the governor has 10 days to decide whether to veto it, sign it into law or let it become law without his signature.
Wednesday’s announcement of the unusual legislative break with just eight working days left in the session will push the Legislature’s 90th and final day from April 22 until at least April 26. Lawmakers are considering whether to take another two days off before Easter on April 24, which would push the end date to April 28.
The break also came as lawmakers got a new revenue estimate from staff that said the state can expect another $27 million in tax revenue the next two years.
Schweitzer has been arguing the entire session that Republicans are low-balling revenue estimates and that more tax money is available to avoid having to make cuts in some critical government programs.
Peterson said Wednesday that lawmakers need time to digest the new revenue information.
The Republicans’ $3.6 billion state budget for the next two years is about $287 million, or 7.4 percent, less than spending for the current two-year budget period.
Schweitzer’s proposed budget that he gave to legislators at the beginning of the session spent about $3.76 billion. He has said the Republican budget is unacceptable because it refuses $100 million in federal funds and shorts key programs in education and human services.
Minority Democrats on Wednesday objected to the four-day break, saying the Legislature should remain in Helena and keep working.
“I feel strongly that we should stay here and finish our job,” said Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula.
Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, also asked Peterson what Republicans intended to do about the new revenue estimate, saying it’s “like having a family secret blown out of the water at the eleventh-hour.”
Peterson said Republicans will “take it into account,” but he didn’t specify how.
A resolution setting the amount of revenue on which the future budget is based remains dormant in the House Taxation Committee, and House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, said Wednesday that Republicans have no immediate plans to move the measure.
Earlier Wednesday, the Senate voted 28-22 to approve HB2 and send it to the governor, one day after the House did the same and the Senate had deadlocked 25-25 on the measure.
On Tuesday, three Republican senators and all 22 Democrats voted against HB2. But Senate leaders moved to reconsider the vote and on Wednesday, the three Republicans -- Art Wittich of Bozeman, Ed Walker of Billings and Greg Hinkle of Thompson Falls -- switched their votes to “yes” to approve it.
Lawmakers spent much of Wednesday rushing through action on a dozen or so companion budget bills, sending most of them into House-Senate conference committees that will start meeting on Monday.
Milburn said the break not only gives the governor time to look over HB2, but also enables the Legislature to save some days for the final week of April to work on the budget and related items after getting an expected veto from Schweitzer.
However, other top Republican legislators also said the break gives them a chance to talk to fellow Republicans and see what they might find acceptable in final-day negotiations with the governor on the budget.