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Montana lawmakers battling over budget shortfall

Oct. 29, 2017 Updated Sun., Oct. 29, 2017 at 11 p.m.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock speaks at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing Sept. 7, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)
Montana Governor Steve Bullock speaks at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing Sept. 7, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)
By Amy Beth Hanson Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. – Some Montana lawmakers appear to be playing a game of political chicken with the budget, even as the state faces the possibility of not being able to afford a $120 million payment due to schools next month.

Tax collections are coming in lower than the revenue estimates approved by Republican lawmakers, and the governor’s budget office is projecting the state will fall $227 million short of its required balanced budget.

Gov. Steve Bullock has said he’d like to call a special session but needs assurances from Republican lawmakers that they would work with him to reach a solution.

In recent phone calls, letters to the editors of Montana newspapers and interim legislative committee meetings, Republicans argue that Bullock can address the shortfall under a state law that allows him to cut up to 10 percent of general fund spending.

Bullock and Democrats counter that Republicans accepted an unrealistic budget picture in March to avoid having to make further cuts or raise taxes, leaving Bullock to shoulder full responsibility for the cuts.

A recent letter to the editor, signed by House Speaker Austin Knudsen, of Culbertson, and others, said it’s time to reduce “state government bloat and leaving those directly providing services to the neediest alone.” An example of the “bloat” Knudsen gave earlier this month was a state agency with fewer than 70 employees that has 17 deputy supervisors.

Budget Director Dan Villa said Thursday that the governor is in regular communication with Republicans to try to negotiate a solution to a budget situation that wasn’t helped by Montana facing $70 million in firefighting costs and an extreme drought that hurt agriculture production.

Republican Sen. Llew Jones, of Conrad, has said he expects the governor would make about $100 million in cuts and lawmakers would meet to address the firefighting costs.

“The governor will need to do some level of expenditure reduction,” Villa acknowledged. But he suggested Republicans are also coming to the realization that if they aren’t part of the solution, they’ll end up owning the problem because they – as the majority party – accepted the flawed revenue estimate.

On Friday, Native American lawmakers held a conference call to weigh in on the state budget and to share their frustration with the proposed cuts, which include eliminating some state worker jobs, keeping vacant posts open and staff furloughs. Other cuts include health care case management for those with disabilities and mental illness and cutting other optional Medicaid programs that critics say would end up costing the state more money because people would need higher levels of service. Education and corrections also face large cuts.

“This isn’t about politics,” said Democratic Rep. Shane Morigeau, of Missoula. “It’s literally a matter of life and death.” He urged lawmakers to set aside the rhetoric and work together to reach a solution.

“I think more people in Montana care about that, that you can put your ego and politics aside when it comes to the betterment of Montana. I think that says more about a person just as a human being than it does as a Republican or a Democrat,” he said.

“It is what it is at this point,” Morigeau said. “We need to get it fixed.”

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