HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock’s sound fiscal management has allowed Montana to avoid problems faced by other states during the federal government shutdown, top administration officials said Tuesday.

Dan Villa, budget director for Bullock, has been on conference calls with his counterparts in other states in recent weeks.

“Montana’s lucky,” Villa said. “Just listening to my colleagues, we’re in such a substantially better position.”

Unlike some states, Montana has not had to implement employee furloughs, reduction in forces, layoffs or whatever various states call them, said Kevin O’Brien, a deputy chief of staff to Bullock. Wyoming furloughed 233 state workers Monday, the Associated Press reported.

“We’re very good with money,” Villa said in an interview. “We’re aggressive cash managers. The governor insisted on having substantial reserves and fund balance. We’ve been able to utilize some of our good fiscal management where other states haven’t.”

Bullock pushed for the 2013 Legislature to leave a projected mid-2015, general fund ending balance, or surplus, of at least $300 million. He vetoed a number of spending bills to achieve it.

“The main point from the state of Montana’s perspective is our fiscal responsibility over the course of the last year has allowed us this flexibility to deal with whatever unexpected surprise may come our way – be it a federal government shutdown, be it wildfire suppression, be it floods,” Villa said. “This fiscal prudency that Gov. Bullock has implemented is yielding results whenever we get hit with a surprise.”

Montana is still drawing on some money from federal fiscal 2013, which ended Sept. 30, to help pay for some programs rather than having to shut them down.

For example, the state is drawing down federal fiscal 2013 funds to partially pay for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps.

“We’re not in the position of an Arizona, who his shutting down TANF benefits,” Villa said.

State mine inspectors are funded about half by the federal government and half by the state, he said. The state is now paying 100 percent during the shutdown, he said, but when the federal government reopens, the feds will pay 100 percent until they’ve paid back the state.

“Boom, no one’s furloughed,” Villa said.”

Spending on Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor, and highway construction are continuing here, Villa said. Neither Medicaid nor the federal highway trust fund is subject to annual appropriations by Congress.

Every day, the Bullock administration closely monitors the state’s cash assets for every fund, from the smallest to the largest, Villa said.

As of 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, Montana had a general fund cash total of nearly $427 million, Villa said, and there other sources of cash such as state special funds, federal special funds and proprietary funds.

“At this point, we’re not seeing any benefit reductions being in the near-term for those people who utilize them – SNAP, TANF and WIC (Women, Infants and Children food and nutrition service),” Villa said. “We have sufficient cash to get us mostly likely through the first of November.”

But Villa said if people apply and qualify for these programs, they get the benefits.

“But people in the near term should not be worried about their SNAP benefits being cut off by the state of Montana tomorrow,” he said.

However, O’Brien said that Congress ultimately needs to get back to work and reopen the federal government.

“Because as strong as a position as Montana is in, our flexibility can only go so far,” O’Brien said.

Villa was asked what happens if the shutdown continues for two months.

“We could be in substantially worse shape if this drags on for a very long time,” he said. “Other states are hitting the panic button today. We’re not.”

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached by email at: chuck.johnson@lee.net or by phone at (406) 447-4066 or (800) 525-4920.

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(1) comment

idiot state

Montana is the worst run, poorest state in the region; it trails far behind the Dakotas, Wyoming, and isn't even on the same page as states like Colorado. But it always has an abundance of bloviating big mouth politicians (particularly in the executive branch) who brag about how Montana is somehow superior in one way or another. There's usually no shortage of journalists who play along, too. Montana is an economic joke.

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