By BOB ANEZ Associated Press Writer
HELENA - As the House prepared to begin work on the $6.2 billion budget today, Republican leaders gave marching orders to their majority: Vote no.
In a GOP caucus before debate started, key Republicans urged members to resist what is expected to be a barrage of Democratic attempts to increase spending.
''We don't have any money,'' said Appropriations Chairman Dave Lewis, R-Helena. ''You have to vote no. We have to ask you to hang with us on this. This thing is balanced on a knife's edge.''
Speaker Doug Mood of Seeley Lake warned fellow Republicans that the goal of the Democratic proposals to increase spending are designed to establish voting records that can be used against GOP lawmakers in the 2004 election.
''That's the game that's played,'' he said. ''And, frankly, it's losing its charm and I don't think people are falling for it.''
Speaker Pro Tempore Jeff Laszloffy, R-Laurel, said Republicans shouldn't worry about political fallout from taking a stand against expanding the budget. Democrats have tried to use voting records against Republicans in the past and it hasn't worked, he said.
The GOP has controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office since 1995.
Lewis said the proposed two-year budget contains $525 million more in total spending than the current budget, with slightly more than half of that coming from the federal government. ''It's not quite as grim as you're going to be told today,'' he said.
But Rep. Tim Dowell, D-Kalispell, said that view misrepresents the true condition of the budget.
The proposed spending level is $140 million less than what state agencies have estimated they need to maintain existing programs and services, he said.
Montanans expect the Legislature to ensure that what government services are available today also will be available tomorrow, but that is not what this budget will provide, Dowell said.
In the Democratic caucus, Minority Leader Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, urged members to challenge Republicans on any piece of the budget that is causing concern, especially education and human service programs.
With the budget short of what is needed to avoid program cuts, he said, ''How is it we can go home with a budget like this and not hurt anyone?''
He said the GOP has manipulated the budget measure, House Bill 2, in such a way that it is hard to determine exactly what some of the proposed budget cuts mean.
The budget being considered by lawmakers contains $2.3 billion in money from the state's checking account, or general fund, that is filled mostly with income taxes. That is about $11 million more than the current budget.
Of the state's share of the budget, 56 cents of every dollar goes to schools and higher education, 23 cents would be spent on human service programs and 9 cents on corrections. The remaining 12 cents is spread across the rest of government.