Most state legislatures would love to have an extra $1 billion to spend. But in Montana, it has led to a historic political meltdown. Through wars, recessions, big...
HELENA, Mont. — Most state legislatures would love to have an extra $1 billion to spend. But in Montana, it has led to a historic political meltdown.
Through wars, recessions, big deficits and a century of political arguments, the Legislature in Helena has always crafted spending plans in the 90 days it is constitutionally granted to do so.
Except this time.
After arguing for four months over how to spend the budget surplus windfall — equal to more than $2,500 per taxpayer — the politically divided Legislature adjourned for the first time anyone can recall without adopting a state budget.
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A witches’ brew of clashing egos and ideology are to blame — and much of it is in the Republican caucus.
One Republican unleashed an angry, profanity-laced tirade at Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer that was posted on YouTube and complicated negotiations just two days before lawmakers adjourned at the end of April. Both sides publicly said they didn’t trust the other.
Thanks to a boom in natural resource businesses and the lowest unemployment rates in the country at 2 percent, Montana expects a surplus by mid-2009 that’s nearly a third the size of its 2007 budget. That’s the second highest percentage among U.S. states behind only Alaska, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
The governor hopes to divvy up the money through a combination of tax rebates, tax cuts and increased spending on schools, prisons and other areas in a deal worked out with moderate Republicans. He called lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special three-day session starting today.
The House GOP appears split between those talking to Schweitzer’s office about his proposed deal, conservatives close to House Speaker Scott Sales, and the rest who are trying to make up their minds.
House Majority Leader Michael Lange, the Republican infamously captured on video cursing at Schweitzer, now appears to be separating from conservative Republicans and joining a group cutting their own deal with the governor.
Less than two weeks after calling Schweitzer a number of names not fit to print, Lange said the “spirit of cooperation is growing every day.”
That has left Sales, a Republican, in charge of a smaller group of conservatives who are blaming Schweitzer for the split in the GOP. That group wants much more permanent property tax relief.
Sales said one of his first goals will be to ask those who cut the deal, without his involvement, to explain it to the rest of the Republicans.
“I’d like this group of 11 or 12 to explain this to the caucus. I’d like them to flesh out the details, so we know what we are getting.”
Sales, who still has the reins on parliamentary procedure in the House, said he will not use his position to obstruct the process — but neither will he help.
Sales’ office was a hub of activity Wednesday, as Republicans from both sides of the proposed compromise were seen going in and out. There are 50 Republicans in the House, 49 Democrats and one member of the Constitution Party.
Schweitzer, on the verge of political victory by dividing his opposition, remains coy. It’s the “fringe” element that will lose, he said. “I think the middle part of Montana is pulling together,” Schweitzer said.
Republican Rep. Bill Glaser said the proposed compromise allows for slightly more property tax cuts and school funding than originally planned, and less in some areas than Democrats in charge of the Senate had sought.
“I think there’s a balance between consideration of tax relief and the taxpayers and the consideration of kids and the priorities of the governor,” Glaser said.
Glaser said the special session, “could come out quite well for the people of Montana by Saturday, or it could be a disaster.”
“It’s not a walk in the park,” Glaser said.