Budget tricks destroy trust

By: Jon Knokey (R-Bozeman)

Serving on the House Appropriation Committee for the Montana Legislature has been the single most eye-opening activity of my career. Simply put, I came from the private sector and if someone ran a business or non-profit like we ran our government, they’d be finished. The latest move on infrastructure exemplifies this.

Here is the backstory. Late last year the Montana Department of Transportation special fund was so depleted that they postponed thirty large infrastructure jobs. Contractors and construction workers – people who had previously been told that projects were underway – were now told that these jobs may never start. Hundreds of real people lost the opportunity for real jobs.

The legislature, which convened on January 2nd, decided to move quickly. First, we asked executive agencies if they needed any emergency funds to continue operations until the end of Fiscal Year 2017 (which ends this summer). For instance, Elsie Arntzen, Superintendent of Schools, highlighted that student enrollment in Montana was higher than our legislative projections from 2015 and she needed to cover the shortfall. The committee approved these expenditures as we certainly have the obligation to educate our kids through the end of the school year.

The Montana Department of Transportation sat quietly at this meeting. They did not ask for money citing later that they “knew the cash was not in the General Fund for the transportation budget.”

Republican leadership, led by Majority Leader Ron Ehli and Rep. Greg Hertz, then moved quickly to push forward House Bill 203, with the aim to inject nearly $14 million dollars into the transportation budget. This near-term injection, when matched with Federal Highway Funds, would quickly get our infrastructure projects moving again this spring.

Why this matters is that yesterday, just hours before the Republican bill was put forth, Governor Bullock announced at the Annual Montana Contractors Meeting that he planned to put a $10 million loan into the transportation budget. The first question is why the heck didn’t Bullock do this last fall when the projects were halted and jobs were lost? Did the Republicans force him to act? Did he really just want to steal the Republican’s thunder rather than actually fix the problem months ago?

The more troubling question arises on the funny-money nonsense. Remember, just last week the department admitted that there was not $10 million in the General Fund for transportation. Now, miraculously, we had $10 million more in the bank.

The timing is worth repeating: the same day the Republican’s proposed a solution (and the same day there happens to be a Contractor Conference) we had $10 million dollars fall from the heavens. The coincidence is stunning and political. But it gets worse.

At the House Appropriations hearing yesterday, committee members grilled the director of transportation, asking him what happened in one week. How did $10 million just magically appear? After several attempts to get the answer he finally claimed that late Wednesday night the Federal government sent Montana a “rebate” of $10 million.

Let that sink in. The night before the Annual Contractor conference and the day Republican’s introduced a bill to fix our transportation shortfall (and one week after having no money in the general fund for transportation and six months after the crises started) we received a late-night $10 million gift from the Feds.

This is exactly why people don’t trust government. This is a textbook case of politicians using the people’s money for short-term political gain. But the worst is yet to come.

The only potential federal “rebate” we might expect would have been appropriated for Medicaid. The Governor’s office took money that was specifically allocated for the sick and the poor and put it in to transportation, just so he could one-up the Republicans and win political favor in front of a room of contractors. When Medicaid comes up for discussion in the legislature, I wonder where the governor will find the money to fix that?

I call on the governor to demand that the Medicaid funding be used for the poor. I call on him to stop playing games with the people’s money. We need a long-term strategy for both Medicaid and Transportation, not short-term political games.

Jon Knokey represents Bozeman.  He has a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard and Masters in Business Administration from Dartmouth.  He graduated from Montana State with a B.S. in Business.  Jon Knokey also played quarterback for the Bobcats.