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Schweitzer Hands Off Big Budget Plans to Bullock
Governor acknowledged the budget proposal is perhaps one last hurrah
HELENA — Gov. Brian Schweitzer packed a final budget proposal with big ideas Thursday, using the occasion to hold court for what could be his last time as governor as he touted two terms of surpluses, knocked around legislative Republicans, and remained coy about a future that will hold "no tears, more beers."

Schweitzer's two-year proposal accepts federal money for a government health care expansion, even though the governor has in the past been critical of the Obama administration overhaul. Schweitzer said the state has to pay only $5 million to extend Medicaid coverage to 80,000 Montanans, which he said ensures most everyone is covered.

"It is a good deal for Montana," Schweitzer said.

Republicans worry such a Medicaid expansion will leave states with big bills down the road when federal reimbursements for the expansion start to dry up. But the governor said he thinks those problems will be avoided.

Schweitzer could not run for governor again this year due to term limits, and will be replaced by Gov.-elect Steve Bullock in January.

Overall, Schweitzer's proposal increases state spending 3 percent each of the next two years. It would increase education funding to pay for a college tuition freeze and put more money into K-12 schools. The governor said those ideas would be his top priority.

The plan also aims to create 1,200 construction jobs by borrowing $88 million at interest rates below 3 percent for government and college buildings around the state, topped by a new Montana Historical Society museum in Helena.

But Schweitzer said he also is leaving enough room with a $410 million projected surplus for Bullock's campaign promises, such as a tax rebate for homeowners and a reduction in the business equipment tax. Schweitzer said he agrees those are both good ideas.

Bullock can make his own adjustments before the Republican-led Legislature makes its changes and sends the budget back to his desk.

Schweitzer had plenty of his favorite criticisms for Republicans who run the Legislature, arguing they are "to the right of Genghis Khan." He said they would cut higher education funding, which would lead to a tuition increase that is a "tax increase" on every family with a student in college or that hopes to send one to college.

Schweitzer argued his administration has maintained budget surpluses through a national recession without raising taxes.

His current proposal is packed with a fix to the pension system that asks employers and employees both to pay more, an idea lawmakers have begrudgingly advanced after failing to come up with an alternative. Schweitzer was critical of county governments that don't want to kick in more for their employees.

"We actually have a plan. The rest of those cats don't," the governor said.

The budget also includes more money aimed at reducing repeat criminal offenders, and funding to help eastern Montana oil-boom towns deal with overburdened infrastructure.

Schweitzer recognized the budget proposal is perhaps one last hurrah, and the governor's reception room was packed with staff and others who applauded him after he spoke and answered questions for nearly an hour.

"It has been an extreme honor to serve the people of Montana for the past eight years," Schweitzer said. "I believe with all my heart that we are passing the state on to the next administration in better shape than we found it, by a lot."

The governor said he thinks the state is "in good hands" with Bullock, the Democratic attorney general who won last week.

Schweitzer has not said what he plans to do after leaving office, although he has been a more frequent contributor on cable news networks and has been mentioned by some as a possible dark horse contender for president in 2016.
 
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