Gov. Steve Bullock touched on his budgeting priorities for the 2015 Legislature during a stop in Missoula on Thursday, saying the outcome of the session will depend less on party affiliation and more on collaboration, ideas and achievement.
Still in his first term as governor, Bullock is facing his second legislative session. Investing in infrastructure and early childhood education top his agenda, and tackling dark money and job training remain high on his list of goals.
“All of Montana hopes important things will happen there,” Bullock said of the session. “We’re starting from a good place.”
Bullock said Montana remains fiscally sound heading into the session, with the unemployment rate lingering at a scant 4.5 percent. More than 12,000 new jobs have been added over the past 12 months, and the state ranks as one of the most fiscally prudent in the country.
Bullock said he’ll demand that legislators leave an ending-fund balance of $300 million when the session comes to a close. He called it a reasonable request given the state’s $2.5 billion budget.
“Maintaining that fiscal discipline is a significant priority for me,” Bullock said.
Bullock is placing high hopes on a proposed $300 million infrastructure bill. As proposed, it would blend cash and bonds to tackle infrastructure needs in 54 of the state’s 56 counties.
Carried by Rep. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, the bill includes $45 million for oil- and gas-impacted communities in eastern Montana. The bill would create an additional 4,500 jobs, he believes.
While some legislators are expected to resist the bonding portion of the bill, Bullock said the state’s fiscal standing allows it to borrow money at 4 percent interest. Last year, the State Board of Investments had a return of 17 percent, he added.
“We’re at a place in our state where borrowing money can be less expensive to do this over time than spending cash,” he said. “Everybody has their own priorities, but to look at the state as a whole state and not just geographic regions makes a whole lot of sense.”
Bullock will also make a second attempt to expand Medicaid and provide health insurance to 70,000 working Montanans. Uncompensated care is making it difficult for rural hospitals to stay open, he said.
“The continued vibrancy of our small towns depends upon whether you have access to critical care at a rural hospital,” he said. “Let’s figure out a way to take federal dollars to expand Medicaid.”
The governor’s budget also includes $44 million to freeze tuition at Montana colleges and universities for two more years, and it looks to invest $37 million into voluntary early childhood education.
Given the state’s growing manufacturing and health care sectors, Bullock said he’ll also work to expand job training at two-year colleges. Educational leaders and employers believe the move would help produce more workers suited for today’s jobs.
“Most Montanans are less wrapped up in the politics and more wrapped up on raising their families,” Bullock said. “When I think infrastructure and education, when I think of providing dollars for mental health or health care, these are areas where we ought to be able to agree and work together.”