The Montana State Capitol

The Montana State Capitol in Helena.

Thom Bridge,thom.bridge@helenair.com

This week, Montana’s legislators will return to Helena for a special session called by Gov. Steve Bullock to plug yawning holes in the state’s biennial budget. Without action, Montana is facing the prospect of a $227 million shortfall.

But special sessions are themselves expensive. It costs more than $100,000 to convene a special session of the Legislature on the first day, and nearly $60,000 for each day after.

Montanans must hold our legislators accountable for making good use of this time. Their focus should be on patching up the state budget in a way that maintains the most critical services to Montanans, and a final agreement should be reached as quickly as possible.

This means Republican legislators, who hold a legislative majority, must be willing to consider the temporary tax increases proposed by Bullock. Democratic leadership, for their part, must be willing to consider the ideas offered by Republicans in their successful petition to expand the scope of the session, such as the $30 million private prison deal.

But leaders from both parties must make it clear that petty politics and pet projects will not be tolerated – and their constituents back home must stand ready to hold their legislators’ feet to the fire.

One constructive place to start the budget discussion is wildfire funding, which nearly everyone agrees must be covered by raising additional revenues, such as a temporary tax increase. Although Montana received federal help paying its firefighting costs this year, the summer fires proved to be more expensive than expected, draining the money set aside by the state to pay for firefighting and leaving it with a $75 million bill – as well as nothing in the fund for next summer.

Bullock’s starting point is a plan that calls for $76.6 million in cuts to an array of state agencies, $75.1 million in temporary tax increases and $76.5 million in transfers from other funds. If legislators refuse to approve any tax increases or transfers, the full amount of the budget shortfall would have to be made in the form of cuts.

That is completely unacceptable. A 10 percent cut to the Department of Public Health and Human Services alone would mean the loss of health care management for children in foster care, reduced services for children with blindness, reduced funding to support teen parents, dramatically fewer services for individuals with disabilities and seniors, and much more.

As it is, Bullock’s revised reductions would still mean the loss of 19 Offices of Public Assistance scattered throughout the state’s most rural communities, as well as the elimination of an early intervention program for developmentally delayed youth ages 3-21.

The new proposal would require DPHHS to reduce its budget by 4.7 percent, for a total cut of more than $49 million – still painful, but vastly less so than the $105 million the department is currently considering which, if enacted, would trigger the additional loss of $135 million in federal funds.

To balance the books, Bullock is hoping legislators will support temporary tax increases such as a 3 percent increase on the accommodations tax and a 6 percent increase on the tax for rental cars.

An additional “fee” would collect 3 percent from certain Montana State Fund accounts with assets exceeding $1 billion, a solution that ought to be viewed with deep skepticism by legislators from both sides of the aisle. Although such a fee would raise nearly $30 million over the next two years, it would basically be a tax on Montana’s small businesses, ranchers and loggers, and would jeopardize the long-term stability of the fund as well.

On the other hand, a company called CoreCivic that operates a private prison in Shelby has recently offered to turn over some $32 million to the state toward the purchase of the facility. The money would come from an account the state has been paying into under a contract that is set to expire in August 2019. Democratic leaders have characterized the offer as a distraction from urgent budget discussions, but given the urgency of the special session, it should be on the table.

Montanans are going to expect our governor and legislators to at least meet each other in the middle to start these discussions. After all, they’re the ones who left the state in this mess when the regular session was adjourned – two days early – in April. The clock is ticking. Montanans are watching.

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