By Phil Drake
HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday accused the Republican leadership of the Legislature of ordering its fiscal division to not release more optimistic revenue projections until halfway through the session so that they could follow their own agenda for cuts to state government.
GOP leaders quickly dismissed the Democratic governor’s claims, calling them “inaccurate” and accused him of turning “the Capitol into an arena for political theater.”
Schweitzer’s comments came on the same day Legislative Fiscal Division increased its revenue projections by $97 million said that due to improving tax collections.
“Isn’t that what we said in November?” Schweitzer said, referring to his estimates provided by Budget Director David Ewer.
The comments reflect a long-running dispute between the governor’s office and the Legislative Fiscal Division (LFD) over whose budget projects are right. The governor claims the state has $355 million in the bank today, while the LFD estimated at one time there could be a budget shortfall of $300-$400 million. The governor has proposed a $3.7 billion 2013 biennium General Fund budget, which is about $183 million above what Republicans have esimated.
“I’ve figured out what is going on with the Republican leadership around here,” Schweitzer said.
He said he made cuts last year when reserves got down to about $30 million without raising taxes and without calling a special session of the Legislature. He said it apparently angered GOP leaders.
“They absolutely knew in November that revenues would be much higher,” he said and told the LFD to ignore facts so that when the Legislature came to town they would have a reason for cutting.
GOP leaders dismissed the governor’s comments, saying they were a “new low.”
“Any suggestion that we are trying to influence the Legislative Fiscal Division’s revenue estimate is entirely inaccurate,” House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, said in a prepared statement. “We want the most accurate and up to date numbers available. The Legislature has a job to do and we cannot afford to engage in political games with revenue estimates and our budget.”
Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said he was encouraged over the past few weeks with Schweitzer’s willingness to work with the Legislature on solutions.