Wonky Word Wednesdays: Appropriation

Deciding how the state invests our tax dollars is critical to how our state supports its citizens and improves our overall economy. It is this part of the process – who receives what and why – that makes the legislature so fascinating (at least for geeks like me).  With that in mind, let’s tackle one of the most important and most used words of the budget process – appropriation.

What does appropriation mean?

An appropriation is authority given to a government agency or institution to spend a specified amount of government money. In other words, it is the government giving a green light to spend a set amount of money for a set purpose. No state money can leave the state treasury without an appropriation, and the Montana Constitution does not allow appropriations to be made for religious, charitable, industrial, educational, or benevolent purposes to any private individual, private association, or private corporation not under control of the state. 

How are appropriations made in Montana?

If you remember back to your high school government class – it is the legislative branch that has the “power of the purse.” In Montana, every bill containing spending or an appropriation must start in the House of Representatives. Each of these appropriations bills is assigned to the House Appropriations Committee.

An appropriations bill must have a favorable vote out of this committee and pass the entire House of Representatives by the 67th day of the Legislature – called a transmittal deadline. From here the system basically follows School House Rock model. It then it goes to the Senate, where it will be assigned to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.  From there, it must pass the full Senate, pass conference committee if there were changes to the original legislation, and eventually receive the signature of the Governor.

How many appropriations bills are there?

Most of Montana’s appropriations to fund the functions of state government are contained in the main spending bill called the General Appropriations Act. It is more commonly referred to as House Bill 2 (HB2). Don’t worry, we will go into great detail about HB2 at a later wonky word. However there are other appropriations bills, including long-range planning (another wonky word for the future) and “cat and dog” bills. I’m not making this term up. Walk through the halls in Helena and people will know exactly what you are talking about. There are many important pieces of legislation that these “cat and dog” bills fund including HB 1, which funds the entire legislature. However the term refers to legislators having “pet” projects that often require state spending.

Appropriating our tax dollars is one of the most critical roles of our Montana legislature. We will continue to drill down into variety of words associated with appropriations and the Montana state budget in future installments. 

Are there any wonky budget words you want us to explain? Email me at tjensen@montanabudget.org or post something to our Facebook page.

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