HELENA - Some legislative budget panels began casting votes Monday at the urging of House and Senate Democratic and Republican appropriation chairmen who asked them to vote for or against a budget idea or, if necessary, to defer action.
Senate Finance Chairman Keith Bales, R-Otter, and House Appropriations Chairman Jon Sesso, D-Butte, sent a memo Monday calling on subcommittee members to cast budget votes.
Their action followed Gov. Brian Schweitzer's criticism Friday that the subcommittees were stalling on votes and that he intended to work on individual lawmakers to jump-start the votes. Both lawmakers said it was unrelated to Schweitzer's prompting.
Schweitzer was upset because some subcommittees decided last week not to vote on budget issues, preferring to wait until they knew more about the federal economic stimulus bill or heard updates on Montana's falling projected revenues.
In their memo, Bales and Sesso noted that the reduced revenue estimates, which were lowered Friday by $85 million more for the three years, confirmed their fears. They warned that the estimates might be cut again.
The Legislature's chief revenue forecaster, Terry Johnson, who suggested the $85 million reduction Friday, earlier trimmed the projected revenues by $135 million in December.
"With that in mind, we should continue our hearings on various agencies and programs and proceed with executive action, keeping in mind that we are faced with the difficult task of reducing the budget further," Bales and Sesso said.
They recommended that the subcommittees consider these actions on budget issues:
• Approve. Lawmakers would proceed with these positive budget decisions with strong support, strong documentation and where decisions are unlikely to change regardless of revenue updates. For example, they cited programs with limited general funds that are mostly funded with state special funds or federal funds are unlikely to be affected by the federal jobs stimulus legislation.
• Reject. Lawmakers would vote down the budget decisions with little support, that aren't well documented and that are unlikely to survive the budget process under any revenue scenario.
• Defer. Budget decisions would be postponed on any issues that are likely to be affected as conditions change. Examples would be those with large amounts of general funds, those linked to the federal stimulus package and those needing better performance documentation.
Bales said their memo had nothing to do with Schweitzer's criticism.
"It's the Legislature's responsibility to appropriate the money," the Republican said. "We've been moving forward and will continue to move forward."
Sesso also said he wasn't responding to Schweitzer.
"I'm responding to the need to lead and provide direction to the House Appropriations Committee members and joint appropriations members," the Democrat said. "There is nothing attempting to leapfrog the responsibility we already have here."
Schweitzer was out of town Monday, but his communications director issued a statement. "The governor recognizes the difficulty that the Legislature faces building a budget during a time of much uncertainty," she said. "However, the budget building process must continue."
Elliott said Schweitzer was encouraged to see the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education take action Monday and urged other subcommittees to follow suit.
"While we would like to believe that a federal stimulus will solve many of our budget problems, those funds must be treated as one-time-only and should have no affect on the legislature moving ahead on the budget," she said.
In related news, the House Taxation Committee will take up the revenue estimates at a hearing on Wednesday morning, Chairman Bob Lake, R-Hamilton, said.
The committee is expected to reduce the revenue estimates set by an interim legislative committee in November by chief revenue forecaster Johnson's revenue estimate cutbacks totaling $220 million - $125 million in December and $85 million of last week.
The revenue estimate helps dictate budget spending levels because the Montana Constitution requires the Legislature to enact a balanced budget.