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HELENA — Echoing Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Democratic legislative leaders said Wednesday that state tax collections are continuing to improve, so they questioned why Republicans are cutting budgets for state programs.

Democratic lawmakers cited estimates from the governor's budget office this month that show that projected state revenue for fiscal 2011, 2012 and 2013 is $5.420 billion, or $3 million more than Schweitzer's budget office projected two months ago.

Their estimates also are about $168 million higher than the $5.252 billion estimate that a bipartisan interim legislative committee unanimously agreed to in mid-November.

The Legislature's chief revenue forecaster, Terry Johnson, will present his updated forecast Thursday before the House and Senate Taxation committees.

Johnson was still working on his report Wednesday afternoon and didn't have final numbers, but he said, “There's definitely a significantly upward adjustment.”

Senate Minority Whip Kim Gillan, D-Billings, said at a press conference that she had heard the legislative forecast will be $90 million to $95 million higher than in November, but still shy of what Democrats now believe it to be.

Gillan voiced frustration that the House Taxation Committee hadn't yet acted on House Joint Resolution 2, which is the Legislature's official revenue estimate. As a result, she has introduced Senate Bill 377, which is the Democrats' version of the revenue estimate. It is the first time, at least in recent years, that a separate revenue estimate bill started in the Senate.

Senators have voiced frustration that the House revenue estimates have never reached the Senate in recent sessions.

Gillan said legislators are here to balance the budget.

“But how can we balance the budget if we don't have realistic and timely information?” she said. “The great news is Montana has turned the corner and we're upward in recovery. That isn't my opinion. That is the opinion of both national and Montana economists.”

The revenue estimate is a key part of setting a state budget because the Montana Constitution says that the money appropriated by the Legislature cannot exceed anticipated revenues.

“The Republicans need to give us a revenue estimate to show us where we are,” said Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula.

House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Sesso, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said, “Before I am forced to vote to cut services for this great state, to cut autism programs, to cut mental health programs, to cut the very needs that our citizens are demanding and respect, I think it's only right that we give the glass half full a chance.”

Later, House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, was asked if the legislative revenue estimate should be raised as Democrats suggested,

“First of all, we have to look at are we here to spend all the money that we can,” Milburn told reporters. “I think that's the attitude the governor is proposing. Hey, our economy is looking better than what our people down in Legislative Fiscal Division say, so let's spend it. That's not what Montanans put us here to do.”

He said Montanans want a more responsible government, and Republicans are looking at what Montanans need, not just what they are going to get.”

Milburn said Republicans will update the revenue estimate as time goes on.

“We know that the economy is growing,” he said. “We don't know to what degree. We believe it will be at a slower degree than in the past. We have to take a cautious approach.”

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