Governor prepares for final legislative session

2010-12-26T19:52:00Z Governor prepares for final legislative sessionBy MIKE DENNISON - Ravalli Republic State Bureau Ravalli Republic

HELENA - As Gov. Brian Schweitzer prepares for his final Legislature as Montana's chief executive, he has one overriding message for lawmakers coming to town next week: If your proposal doesn't create good jobs for Montana, don't bother.

"This is priority No. 1, priority No. 2 and priority No. 3," he said late last week. "Does it create higher-paying jobs in Montana? If it doesn't create higher-paying jobs, then why are you proposing this? ...

"If they don't have the answer for me, I'm probably not going to be supportive."

For the first time in his career as governor, Schweitzer, a Democrat, faces a Legislature controlled entirely by the opposing party. It's also his last full legislative session as governor, as term limits will end his second and final term in 2012.

Republicans won sweeping legislative victories in November, picking up 18 seats to forge a 68-32 majority in the state House and upping their margin by one in the Senate to 28-22.

During the campaign and afterwards, Republicans said they want to rein in what they saw as excessive government spending under Schweitzer and further roll back regulations and taxes they say are stifling resource development in Montana.

Schweitzer talks often about his support for coal, oil, wind and other energy production, and said he's willing to see what proposals Republicans will offer to encourage more of such development.

The governor also said he and Republicans will be "full partners" for the next Legislature, and hopes they can work together to maintain Montana as a good place to do business and educate its workforce.

"It doesn't serve the people of Montana to create a divide between people," he said. "We're looking for ways to bring people together. I'm doing everything I can to help bring people together during this legislative session."

Yet when it comes to spending, Schweitzer, in a wide-ranging interview at his Capitol office, said last week he'll be staunchly defending his proposed state budget, particularly its higher spending on public schools and higher education.

"The greatest path to higher-paying jobs is a well-trained, well-educated workforce," he said.

Schweitzer said a big chunk of increased state spending during his tenure has been for education and that he's "not going to apologize that we've increased funding for K-through-12 schools and higher education. ... I'm proud of that."

Republicans have criticized Schweitzer's proposed budget as not "structurally" balanced, meaning it relies on a variety of fund transfers to finance ongoing programs, and therefore can't be sustained in coming years.

Schweitzer dismissed this criticism as "balderdash," saying many Republican lawmakers have voted for state budgets in the past that used one-time funds and transfers to balance the books.

His budget is balanced for the next two years, pays for programs important to the state and has a sizeable year-end cushion - and that's all that matters, he said.

"Let's stick to what you've actually been elected to do, and that is to balance the budget for the next two years," Schweitzer said. "If somebody starts telling you some kind of fairy-tale story about what they believe the budget will be three, five, seven years from now, it's just a fairy tale.

"It's a fairy tale because they have no idea what the sources of revenue will be. And they have no obligation or no authority to talk about what will be three or five years from now."

The governor also said he doesn't understand why Republicans and their supporters keep loudly insisting Montana is a poor place to do business.

"If there are some ideas (on environmental regulations) for creating higher-paying jobs in Montana, I'd like to hear them," he said. "But if there's just more of this rhetoric, I would say, ‘Settle down there.' ... For 90 days, every other year, you get legislators that come to town and they stand on a stump and they shout that Montana's a bad place to do business."

Schweitzer noted that his budget includes more tax breaks for business, by exempting additional small businesses from paying property taxes on their equipment.

He also complimented legislators who've worked on prior budgets while he's been governor, helping to make Montana one of the only states in the country that is still in the black.

Schweitzer said while unemployment remains relatively high in Montana, he thinks the groundwork has been laid for an economic rebound - and that it would be a mistake to undermine education and other programs that serve the state and its citizens well.

"We've had a pretty good run in the last six years, arguably some of the best years in Montana," he said. "And we think we've got a couple of good years in front of us. And I know this for sure: I will guarantee it, I will guaran-dang-tee it, that Montana's best days are ahead of us."


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