Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he wants ideas from the public on how the state can save money without reducing services, and he promises to implement the plan that gets the most votes.
Schweitzer said ideas will be collected over the Internet through the end of March, then four finalists will be put up for a public vote on the state Web site.
The person who submitted the top vote-getter will receive a palladium coin worth $400 donated by Montana's Stillwater Mine, Schweitzer said Wednesday.
There are some catches.
The idea has to be something the governor can actually implement, and a committee of legal and budget staff sifting out the top choices will be looking for plans that save money without reducing services.
"We'd like to cut the cost of delivering the current services we have," Schweitzer said.
All of the submissions will be publicly posted under the initiative called the Montana Accountability Partnership, he said.
The Democratic governor said he wouldn't be surprised if someone came up with an idea to save several million dollars or more.
Republican Senate President Bob Story of Park City said he likes the idea of involving citizens who are watching all the time, but issues could arise if not enough information on the proposed cut is provided for the public vote.
"If they need help making budget recommendations, then they should call the legislator to town and have those people that are elected to do that job do it," Story said.
Story said he would have preferred to keep spending lower in the first place during last year's legislative session by not fully implementing the voter-approved expansion of children's health insurance.
While the governor unrolls relatively small budget cutting ideas, along with the public contest, his agency directors are putting together plans for potentially much larger cuts. Schweitzer said those plans are due by month's end.
But the governor said Wednesday he is not sure yet how much will have to be cut.
"We are just at the phase where we are looking at the low-growing fruit," Schweitzer said.
Other savings plans announced so far include cutting $2 million from wildfire-related equipment purchases, saving $380,000 over two years by axing four jobs at the Commerce Department, and eliminating a printed state government directory that costs $20,000.
The Legislative Fiscal Division has estimated that the state will have just $17 million in the bank when the current two-year budget period ends in June 2011 — a prediction that has dropped by millions of dollars with each new analysis.
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