HELENA — Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Republican leaders at the Legislature struck a deal Friday night on the session’s major spending bill, which they said cuts government spending by 6.5 percent over the next two years but still provides adequate funds for schools, human services and the University System.
Schweitzer, Senate President Jim Peterson and House Speaker Mike Milburn presented and signed the deal at a Capitol news conference and said they expect the Legislature to wrap up its work on the $3.6 billion budget and related items next week.
“We were able to get some things that we wanted and in the end, the governor got a few things that he wanted,” Peterson said. “Through the negotiation process, everyone got a little bit of benefit, and we still have a product that lives within the guidelines that the Republican caucus set for themselves.”
Milburn called the final product a “conservative budget, a responsible budget. ... Montanans want to trim the fat from the budget. I’m going to be able to say to my caucus that we have met those requirements.”
The deal goes back to the full House and Senate for a vote next week before it becomes law.
“I think both of our caucuses will support this,” Peterson said.
The surprise deal, hammered out a day before Schweitzer had a deadline to sign or veto the major spending bill, House Bill 2, sets the stage for the final days of the 2011 Legislature, which reconvenes Tuesday.
Schweitzer, a Democrat, had been jousting with majority Republicans over the budget for most of the session, calling their proposed spending plan “unacceptable” or even unconstitutional.
But the three leaders continued to meet during the past two weeks and spent the better part of the past two days talking to craft an agreement on HB2, two days after lawmakers left for a five-day break over the Easter weekend.
“Every time we’d get close, there would be a little hitch along the way; they’re great negotiators,” Schweitzer said. “(But) I’m here to say that we have a deal. ... The good news on Good Friday is that we have a deal.”
Key points of the deal include:
— The restoration of the $100 million or so in federal funding that Republicans had rejected for human service programs such as food stamps, home-heating assistance and other items.
— Funding for public schools similar to a deal brokered late Wednesday. It includes a 1 percent increase in state base aid this year and 2.4 percent next year.
— A restoration of some funding for the state University System, which had been looking at a $30 million reduction. The amount of restored funding wasn’t clear Friday night but appeared to be at least $10 million.
Other details weren’t readily available. Schweitzer and the two GOP leaders signed 12 pages of amendments that listed changes in funding they had agreed to, but the amendments generally listed dollar amounts without the specific programs.
The deal, however, did not include a negotiated pay plan and raise for state employees. Milburn said that bill would be brought up again on the House floor next week and possibly amended before another vote.
House Republicans voted down the pay-plan bill 60-40 on Wednesday.
Schweitzer and the two Republican leaders said the deal does include the dozen or so “companion” budget bills that are still in conference committees before the Legislature. Those bills will be amended and passed to coincide with the agreements in HB2, they said.
Other major issues still before the Legislature, including one addressing medical marijuana, were not part of the budget talks and will stand or fall on their own merits, they said.
The 90th and final scheduled day of the Legislature is April 30. Peterson said he hoped lawmakers could wrap things up before that next week, but that the formalities would take at least a few days.
Milburn said that while talks between the governor’s office and Republicans may have seemed rocky at times, “I never thought it would fall apart.”
“I’m kind of an optimist,” he said. “It’s kind of like making sausage. I think in the end we made a pretty good product. We were always going to do it. It was just a matter of how long it would take.”