Gov. Steve Bullock on Nov. 6 announced he was calling lawmakers back to Helena to convene for a special session, a final effort to plug the holes in the budget and balance the state’s checkbook.
In making the announcement, Bullock, a Democrat, pared back his earlier proposal to cut $227 million from the state’s general fund over the next biennium, which would have had the heaviest impact — 85 percent — on Montana’s most vulnerable populations served by three agencies: the Department of Public Health and Human Services, Department of Corrections and primary, secondary and higher education.
Under state law, the governor retains the authority to “cut our way out of a budget deficit,” he said.
However, “after I reviewed the proposals from agencies to cut their budgets up to 10 percent, it became clear to me that these cuts would have long-lasting and damaging impacts to essential services Montanans depend on and deserve,” Bullock said Monday, according to prepared marks provided by his office.
Instead, he recommended cutting $76.6 million in general fund spending, including $49 million to the Department of Health and Human Services, while raising some taxes on a temporary basis to defray the costs of Montana’s fire season. He also recommended delaying state contributions to the employee health plan and the judicial retirement system, which are running surpluses.
The 150 members of the Montana Legislature will return to Helena on Tuesday, Nov. 14, with committee hearings beginning Nov. 13.
The budget shortfall comes on the heels of an expensive wildfire season and lower-than-expected revenues. To remedy the crisis and backfill the deficit, Bullock had proposed drastic spending cuts that left state leaders with two choices — accept the nearly 10 percent across-the-board cuts to state agencies, or convene for a special session in an effort to craft revenue-generating legislation and defray the cost-cutting.
They’ll now head back to Helena for the latter.
And while Bullock said the proposal is representative of his ongoing negotiations with leaders from both parties, Republican leadership says a deal has not been agreed upon as it works to inform the entire caucus of the talks.
“It’s disconcerting that Governor Bullock is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to call 150 legislators from across the state back to Helena as a first step in fixing our state’s budget,” according to a statement from Republican House Majority Leadership Austin Knudsen. “Let’s be clear here, the Governor expects the legislature to raise taxes on hardworking Montanans before any effort to reduce non-essential services has been made. There is a distinct lack of leadership from the executive branch, but my caucus will do what needs to be done to address the budget head on while doing what Montanans elected us to do — keeping in mind the taxpayers and those who utilize government services.”
Bullock has drawn criticism from the GOP for favoring a mix of spending cuts and targeted tax increases, and he said time is running out to deliver a balanced budget, the lone constitutionally mandated requirement of Montana’s citizen legislature.
“We will continue to dig into the details over the course of this week. But we are running out of daylight — we must have a solution by the 27th of November,” according to Bullock’s prepared remarks. “I believe we are moving towards a reasonable and responsible compromise, and legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle are aware that I am calling the Legislature back to Helena. I anticipate a quick and productive session.”
Details of the proposed budget are available online at www.balancedbudget.mt.gov.