Welcome to a new year and a new legislative session. With our eyes toward Montana’s future, we are hopeful that the next 90 days will bring badly needed changes. We must put our state back on a path toward economic stability that creates greater opportunities for all Montanans.
This November, the people of Montana sent a strong message to Helena: we are ready for a change in the way our state is run. And with a legislative session ahead that will be largely focused on the budget this will be critical for all Montanans.
In our time serving Montana in the Legislature, we’ve watched the state budget surplus squandered away from more than $500 million in 2011, to $300 million in 2015 to nearly nothing today.
Montana is one of the lucky states that has a balanced-budget requirement included in our state Constitution. This means that Montana has to function like a business or a household when deciding on spending – we can’t spend more than we take in.
Montana is experiencing a sagging state economy due to record low agriculture commodity prices, lower than projected oil prices, a decimated coal industry and a non-existent timber industry. Due to poor management and excessive regulations, Montana doesn’t have the revenue needed to cover basic costs.
To make matters worse, the size of state government has continued to grow, while revenues decline. We’ve experienced 12 years of increasing spending and new government programs that have added well over 1,000 new state employees to the payroll. Unfortunately, this has created a reality where there is no extra money in the state’s reserves.
As a result, Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature all see the writing on the wall – this will be a belt-tightening session. There is very little room for new programs, and a lot of important areas that must be addressed.
This includes a serious focus on essential infrastructure projects. With many areas in the state still waiting for necessary water and sewer fixes, infrastructure will be a major issue this session – as is has been for our caucus in the past three sessions. Republicans, once again, are committed to passing a basic infrastructure package.
Even under these circumstances, we are hopeful that the tide will turn on the irresponsible spending of the past and lead Montana toward a better future with more opportunities for all of us. By being a check on the governor’s spending and expanding government, we can turn things around.
But Montanans – we want to hear from you. Contact your legislator, write to your local paper, tell us what you need. We were sent here to Helena to serve you, and that is what we plan to do.
Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen
Majority Leader Ron Ehli