Montana Budget Not Ready for Prime-Time

With less than two weeks remaining in the legislative session, the state budget is far from ready for the governor’s signature. Last week, legislative fiscal division released its updated status sheet. Factoring in the current spending bills, tax bills, current revenue estimate, and the budget, the legislature is leaving the state with a mere $162 million in projected ending fund balance. That current level is $138 million below the long-standing precedent for a $300 million ending fund balance. Perhaps even more shocking, it’s $38 million below some Republicans’ counter-proposal for a much lower $200 million ending fund balance.

Thus far, the legislature has:

  • Failed to support nearly all of the governor’s tax fairness measures that would raise needed general fund revenue and provide a pathway for a balanced solution to the recent revenue downturn;
  • Left significant cuts to the budget, particularly in the areas of higher education and social service programs for our seniors and Montanans with disabilities;
  • Passed a myriad of new spending bills that risk leaving an insufficient ending fund balance for dealing with an economic downturn or lower-than-expected revenues; and
  • Increased the revenue estimate simply as a mechanism for balancing the budget.

Any one of these problems should cause concern for the governor and any Montanans who care about the budget and the essential services it funds. The combination of the current problems is simply unacceptable and unsustainable.

The legislature has so far failed to make the difficult choices necessary for a responsible budget. As has been true all session, they have two choices: make further cuts to the budget and other spending priorities or raise revenue. MBPC believes only one responsible choice remains: raising revenue. With significant cuts already proposed by the governor and deeper cuts adopted by the legislature, the legislature must, finally, engage in a meaningful conversation about sensible ways to raise revenue. Options include listening to the dozens of health care professionals and organizations who have asked for an increase in the tobacco tax (which not only raises revenue but also is proven to reduce smoking and decrease health costs) or making sure that millionaires in Montana are paying their fair share for the services and infrastructure that make our families and communities stronger.

It may be that legislators are planning to force the governor to make the additional cuts to popular and essential programs. The governor did his job in proposing a responsible budget, one that included both difficult budgetary cuts but also adequate levels of revenue. Legislators were elected to make the same kinds of hard decisions. If they are going to reject every general fund revenue increase, they need to find other solutions for putting a responsible budget on the governor’s desk.

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