Helena – Montana’s state budget has been the biggest issue of the legislative session so far, that will likely continue when Governor Steve Bullock delivers the annual State of the State address this week.
When he released his budget proposal in November, Bullock said in a press release that “Montanans expect our state’s leaders to live within our means and make responsible decisions about our state finances.”
While Republicans in the legislature agree with that sentiment, they don’t believe Bullock’s proposal matches his rhetoric. Bullock’s budget calls for spending $9.4 billion in the next biennium, an increase of $131 million over the previous two years. Bullock is proposing several tax increases to pay for the new spending.
Some lawmakers also questioned cuts that Bullock proposed to education and public safety – and whether those cuts are fueled by partisanship.
Bullock has proposed to lay-off 27 members of the Montana Highway Patrol, which is under the purview of Republican Attorney General Tim Fox.
“I understand the importance of tightening our financial belt during lean times, but the governor has proposed spending for new programs while at the same time choosing not to fund critical services,” Fox said.
Bullock’s budget proposal would also cut $21.3 million from the Office of Public Instruction, which oversees Montana public schools. Republican Elsie Arntzen took over the department in January after defeating Bullock’s preferred candidate Melissa Romano.
The Republican-led House of Representatives passed legislation Friday that provides an inflationary increase to the state’s K-12 education budget and will aid local school boards during their budgeting process.
“The Republican caucus is dedicated to funding K-12 education and funding it early to give school boards time to plan their school year,” Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen said.
A central focus of Bullock’s recent reelection campaign was a claim that he did not raise taxes in his first term, so Republican lawmakers were quick to point out his budget proposal includes tax increases of $156 million on “Montana’s consumers and job creators.”
The governor’s proposal would increase taxes on medicine, alcohol and tobacco, as well as add another income tax bracket for high earners.
“It’s unbelievable that after watching months and months of political ads and public speeches during the campaign, the governor would turn around with this proposal,” Knudsen said.
Austin Knudsen also criticized Bullock for taking money from local government programs and state savings funds.
“It’s flat out irresponsible to rob vital funding from communities across the state to balance a budget while at the same time increasing the size of the government in Helena,” Austin Knudsen said. “This move puts important infrastructure programs, education and local safety at risk and forces the legislature to increase the state’s debt to pay for them.”
Totaling $83 million, these funds include money from Local 911 funds, state infrastructure funds and Treasure State Endowment and Quality Schools grants program.
Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing for a 3-5 percent “belt-tightening” across state government they say will balance the books until revenues rebound and the structural balance normalizes.
“I think we should stay focused on living within our means,” Senate Majority Whip Mark Blasdel (R-Somers) told the Flathead Beacon. “There is going to be a lot of moaning about the budget, but for Republicans I think there is a pretty unified approach that we have to fix this and do it right.”
By: Big Sky Headlines staff