Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Senate Republicans look to trim House budget

HELENA –The House had barely approved its $8.1 billion version of the state budget yesterday when key Senate Republican leaders began talking about ways to cut it.

“(The budget) is not structurally balanced,” said Sen. Keith Bales, R-Otter and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance and Claims Committee. “It was my hope it would’ve come out of there more balanced.”

Bales, whose committee is scheduled to hold hearings on the budget next week, said the House budget doesn’t account for about $41 million in project revenue shortfalls. The money will have to be cut from somewhere, he added.

“It will come from multiple places,” Bales said. “There is not one place that we can easily reach out and grab that money.”

Bales said Senate Republicans don’t have specific plans for budget cuts but he has a few ideas of his own. He said the committee will consider trimming the base funding for education, human services, corrections and general government. That would help the next Legislature build a balanced budget if revenues don’t improve.

“I certainly do not want to build government in the face of a recession,” he said.

Bales said he expects cuts across the board, but that it is premature to talk about specific cuts when he hasn’t vetted his ideas yet.

However, his vice chairman, Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, said he wants to consider cutting $35 million in funding for the Healthy Montana Kids Plan, a voter-approved plan to offer health insurance to some 30,000 uninsured children.

Republicans tried but failed to cut that money earlier in the House. Lewis said he would like to remove it again because implementing any large new program right now is a bad decision.

“I’m not done looking at it,” Lewis said. “I’ll be bringing it up again.”

Lewis also said he would like to spread some of the stimulus money for infrastructure projects to rural areas. “I think there’s a concentration in the highly populated areas,” Lewis said.

Both Lewis and Bales said the Legislature needs to get the stimulus money out to Montanans quickly to create jobs and help right the economy.

However, Lewis also conceded that any budget decisions the GOP-controlled Senate makes will have to be made without alienating the Democratic administration.

“We’ve always got to be thinking of how we can package this so the governor will sign it,” Lewis said.

-by CNS correspondent Molly Priddy

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