Lawmakers Leave it to Montana Governor to Make Budget Cuts

Republicans said a special session wasn't necessary

By AMY BETH HANSON, Associated Press
The state Capitol rotunda. Beacon File Photo

HELENA — An interim legislative committee in Montana is leaving it to Gov. Steve Bullock to make budget cuts to account for lower-than-expected revenues and higher-than-expected firefighting and Medicaid expansion costs.

The Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee heard Thursday from budget advisers for the Legislature and governor and agreed the governor has the authority to make up to 10 percent in general fund budget cuts under state laws that require a balanced budget with a surplus.

Budget Director Dan Villa said he didn’t see any way revenue would increase enough to allow the state to make up a projected $227 million shortfall over the next two years.

“The only option available to the executive is to cut expenditures,” Villa said. “It is the hope of the governor that we find a more responsible way.”

The governor’s office asked agencies in late August to develop proposals for 10 percent cuts based on expected revenue shortfalls, along with wildfire spending.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services proposed $105 million in cuts over the next two years, including cuts in senior and long-term care, child protection services and addictive and mental disorder programs. The university system must identify another $44 million in cuts.

Several people who testified before the committee Thursday said the cuts would harm some of the state’s most disadvantaged residents and cause some of them to need more costly care. They suggested finding new revenue streams and stressed that lawmakers should keep partisan politics out of the picture.

“People are going to die without the services they need. These aren’t luxuries,” said Joel Peden with the Montana Independent Living Project.

“As the elected leaders of the state it is your obligation to work together — to work together — to find a solution and to stop playing political football with peoples’ lives,” Peden said. “And if you can’t do that then you need to resign your positions and let somebody come in here who can figure out how to make this work.”

Republican Sen. Brian Hoven of Great Falls said there might be ways to cut the budget without making 10 percent across the board cuts, which he said were scaring a lot of people.

But Democratic Sen. Dick Barrett of Missoula told Hoven that if the budget director’s revenue estimates are correct, the governor will need nearly all of the cuts that agencies outlined to balance the budget.

“He cannot pick and choose with these revenue estimates,” Barrett said. “He can’t pick and choose unless he gets help from the Legislature in doing so.”

Democratic committee members wanted to make it clear to the governor that they were open to holding a special session, which could have included considering new or increased taxes or making other budget decisions. Republicans said that wasn’t necessary.

“Personally I think that there’s plenty of powers given to the governor to do what he has to do and then as these projections progress and we see where we’re going. At some point we may need,” a special session, said Republican Sen. Duane Ankney of Colstrip. “I’d be perfectly clear that there isn’t a need at this time for a special session.”

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