Montana Highway Troopers Saved From Budget Ax

Agency would have lost 27 positions as part of Gov. Bullock's plan to trim spending across state government

By Bobby Caina Calvan, Associated Press

HELENA — As many as 27 Montana Highway Patrol jobs that faced elimination because of budget cuts now appear to be safe, as a legislative committee began discussing a statewide spending plan on Tuesday.

Legislators reconvened for the remaining half of a legislative session that will likely be dominated by debate over the state budget and how to address Montana’s infrastructure needs.

The budget discussions began with a sigh of relief from the attorney general’s office, which had expressed alarm over the proposed staffing reductions. The nearly $8 million in proposed cuts sparked tensions between Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican, and the budget office of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

The state has about 250 uniformed highway patrol officers, and the cuts would have represented a significant reduction in staffing.

“With all the crime issues we have in this state, it doesn’t make sense to reduce public safety funding and put Montanans at risk,” Fox said in an interview.

Of particular concern, he said, is keeping personnel on the road to patrol for drug traffickers who are using state highways to spread the scourge of methamphetamines and other drugs in communities across the expansive state.

While Fox was heartened by the willingness of legislators to address his concerns, he said it was still early in the budget process to claim victory. “The process is not over yet. … But we’ll remain vigilant,” he said, adding that he was hopeful that his budget would remain intact.

Legislators appear to have stepped in by shifting special highway revenues, wholly funded by gas taxes, to fill the agency’s budget hole. But by doing so, the state risks losing tens of millions of dollars in matching federal funds, according to the governor’s budget director, Dan Villa.

“Without additional revenue into the highway state special revenue account, this action of the Legislature will result in almost $100 million in cuts to highway road construction and maintenance, and the good-paying jobs that come with it,” Villa said.

Villa called the Republican budget unacceptable, and he expressed frustration that Republicans were unwilling to spread cuts equitably across the different branches of government.

The budget now before the Appropriations Committee increased outlays for other branches of government beyond the amounts recommended by the governor, while reducing the budget for the governor’s office by 13 percent. The cut could slash three full-time positions from the governor’s staff. Meanwhile, Bullock allowed a bill to become law without his signature that boosted by 14 percent how much the Legislature can spend for its current session.

The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee rejected many of the proposals contained in the budget the governor submitted, including $300 million in reserves to cover unexpected expenses or dips in revenue.

As it stands, House Republicans are leaving about $150 million in reserves for now. House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nancy Ballance said she expects to boost those reserves to $200 million by the time the budget is fully drafted— although she did not say how Republicans would do so.