HELENA — As we enter the 2011 Legislature' s home stretch, majority Republicans and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer appear to be a long way from wrapping up the half-dozen remaining major issues, from the state budget to medical marijuana to school funding.
Are we headed to a special session or an extended regular session? Maybe.
But things often have a way of working themselves out in the final days of a legislature, as lawmakers eager to get back to their families, jobs and businesses somehow scratch out a compromise and get out of town.
This year, however, it may take a few extra days, primarily because of the standoff over the state budget between Schweitzer and the Republican majorities at the Legislature.
Early this week, Republicans will send the governor their final version of the session's major spending bill, House Bill 2, in a form he has vowed to veto. They'll also be scraping together as many "companion bills" as they can to give the governor as full a picture as possible of the budget package the GOP is proposing.
The $3.6 billion, two-year spending package will be about $150 million less than first proposed by Schweitzer in November. It won't have a pay plan for state employees, it's leaving out multimillion-dollar chunks of federal money for human services, and it will have less money for the state university system and public schools.
House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, said last week that he hopes the governor doesn't veto the package — although that appears to be a faint hope.
Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said a veto "shouldn't surprise anyone," and that once the veto comes down, he expects Republicans and Schweitzer to start bargaining over where they can find a middle ground on the budget.
"You've got to start somewhere," he said. "I'm sure he'll give us some feedback. We would like to get that dialogue started sooner rather than later."
Peterson said he and Milburn met with Schweitzer several times in the past week to talk about the budget, and that Schweitzer essentially said: Send me a budget, and I'll take a look at it.
Once lawmakers deliver this first draft of the budget, they'll have a decision to make: Keep working on related items and other loose ends, or take a multiday break while Schweitzer prepares his veto.
Peterson and Milburn said no decision has been made, but he acknowledged that they're considering a recess starting the middle of next week and possibly running into the early part of the following week.
"We don't know if we're going to do that yet," Milburn said Friday. "We'd like to wrap it up as quickly as we could. We'll see what he doesn't like with the bills that we give him and keep working if we have to."
When Schweitzer gets a bill from the Legislature, he has 10 days to decide whether to veto it.
There's speculation that the governor already is drafting an "amendatory veto" of the budget bill, and may have it ready soon after getting HB2. Schweitzer, however, hasn't tipped his hand on when or how he'll issue a veto of HB2 or related bills. He also hasn't indicated where he's willing to compromise on the budget, saying only that he likes his original budget.
If lawmakers take a break, that would push the end of the session into the final week of April, beyond the currently scheduled final day of April 22.
Milburn and Peterson said Republicans already have made some compromises on the budget: They've reinserted $35 million of federal money for health care information technology, funded the governor's energy promotion division, and agreed to reinstate funds for a few human service programs.
More compromises could be in the offing, but both Republican leaders said their majorities will offer stiff resistance to adding much more money back to the budget.
"We have to come out of here with a good ending (surplus) and reduced spending, to meet the desires of the public who put us in office, for what we believe was that reason," Milburn said. "Some of what (the governor) has demanded will never get through the House."
Lest we forget, Republicans won convincing victories last November, breaking a 50-50 logjam in the House to take a stunning 68-32 majority, and increasing their majority in the Senate by one, to 28-22.
As for the other issues remaining — medical marijuana, eminent domain laws, environmental regulation, energy regulation — those will get worked out somehow, legislative leaders said. But the big boy is still the budget.
"We're down to the end here and we have to figure this out," Peterson said. "(Schweitzer) gave us a budget and now we'll give him a budget. We'll see where it takes us."
Mike Dennison is a reporter for the Gazette State Bureau in Helena. Contact him at email@example.com or 406-442-2598.