Budget Passes Initial Votes; Governor Ponders Shutdown

Posted on April 11, 2011

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By CODY BLOOMSBURG

HELENA — The Republican-controlled Legislature endorsed its main budget bill Monday, and  Gov. Brian Schweitzer responded immediately by asking the attorney general for details of a government shutdown.

The governor also announced plans  for a “veto branding” on Wednesday.

The budget received a 57-43 initial vote in the House and a 26-24 nod in the Senate, with all Democrats and a few Republicans against it.

Rep. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said the changes made to the plan in the Senate were not acceptable. Abandoning  the Democrats’ session-long hope of spending more on a host of programs, Sesso simply said what was in the budget could have been better distributed.

“Better does not mean more, but better means better,” he said.

That afternoon, Schweitzer sent a letter asking Attorney General Steve Bullock to look into the details of a state government shutdown on July 1 if the Legislature presents him with a budget that he feels does not contain enough money to pay for services.

The action comes as session enters its final two weeks. Its 90th and final day is a week from Friday

Schweitzer letter asked Bullock to determine which services were “essential.” “Can we keep all highway patrol officers on duty?” he asked.

Schweitzer has criticized the GOP’s budget-cutting efforts from the session’s outset, but reserved specific comment until recently, calling it unconstitutional and woefully underfunded.

His proposed budget called for millions more in spending on social services programs for Montana’s poor, elderly and infirm, and for higher education.

But House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, said Schweitzer’s response  was a stunt, adding that a shutdown isn’t even a possibility. “I think (Schweitzer) is just flexing his muscle,” he said.

He also said the Legislature’s budget  is one that Montanans support and that any differences in spending could be worked out in a special session.

Schweitzer also announced earlier that day he will line up bills slated for veto in front of the Capitol on Wednesday and literally slap hot iron to them with his new veto brands. He has yet to announce which bills will be getting the scarlet letters, though.

Lawmakers Monday also endorsed the remaining parts of two different schemes to fund K-12 funding.

The Senate’s plan for public schools would increase state spending on K-12 schools by about a 2 percent increase and inflation costs. The House’s version gives about half of requested inflation costs and a 1 percent total increase.

Unless lawmakers change their minds during the final votes on Tuesday, the three bills that contain those plans will head to a conference committee that will try to meld them in a way that would satisfy both chambers.

Also on Monday, the last chance to keep medical marijuana available for some patients survived its initial vote in the House.

Another bill that would repeal the 2004 voter-approved law sits unsigned on Schweitzer’s desk, but Senate Bill 423 is the final option lawmakers have to guarantee that some people will still have access to the drug. The bill dramatically restricts access and tightly controls providers.

The last-chance air of the debate was apparent as lawmakers on both sides of the issue wound up supporting the measure.

– Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at 208-816-0809 or by e-mail at crbloomsburg@hotmail.com

Posted in: Daily Grind