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Monday, November 20, 2017

Governor calls special session, local reps skeptical

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

 

Legislators will be heading back to Helena next week as  Monday afternoon Gov. Steve Bullock officially put out the call for a special legislative session to try and address the state’s revenue shortfall predicament.

“I have put forth a set of reasonable and thoughtful proposals to balance Montana’s budget for consideration by the Legislature,” Bullock said in a released statement announcing his call for the special session. “It’s time Montana leaders fulfill our responsibilities to the people we represent and balance our budget in a way that makes sense for Montana taxpayers, workers and families.”

Democratic legislators quickly praised the governor’s decision.

“Over the past few months, Montanans have made it overwhelmingly clear that fully implementing these proposed cuts would cause immense harm to families across our state,” said House Minority Leader Jenny Eck in a released statement. “Now is not the time to try to negotiate multimillion dollar sweetheart deals; it is the time to focus on what is best for all Montanans. We hope that the Republican majority will put politics aside and help Democrats and the governor find a fiscally responsible, bipartisan solution to the budget shortfall.”

While Democratic legislators have been pressing for a special session for weeks, Bullock’s announcement was met with far less enthusiasm by Republicans.

“The buck stops with Governor Bullock: He mismanaged the state budget and spent beyond our means,” said Montana GOP Chairwoman Debra Lamm in a statement. “We need to get our spending in order and that means cutting the bloat and bureaucracy in Helena, identifying savings, and making responsible and targeted spending cuts that protect the most vulnerable.”

Both of Dawson County’s legislators, Rep. Alan Doane and Sen. Steve Hinebauch — both Republicans — questioned the timing and need for a special session, laying the blame for the state’s budget crunch at the governor’s feet.

“I’m certainly not enthusiastic about trying to steal more money from my constituents to take care of the governor’s habits,” Hinebauch said. “He overspent his revenue by $100 million, and I don’t think we need to keep feeding his habits.”

Doane said he finds the timing of Bullock’s call for a special session odd for a number of reasons, first noting that the state will have property tax receipts and a new revenue report rolling in within a few weeks which would give both Bullock and legislators a clearer picture of just how much of a revenue deficit they are facing.

“I’m really confused about the timing of it. We have a new revenue report coming in a couple of weeks, and everybody’s got a property tax bill sitting on their table that’s due soon, so the state’s about to see some more revenue,” Doane said. “We’re just kind of shooting blind right now, and it just seems like very odd timing.”

Doane added that Montana is also in line to receive a substantial influx of federal disaster assistance funding for the state’s severe fire season, the cost of which played a major role in draining the state’s coffers, which he said is another reason he questions both the timing and the need for a special legislative session.

“There are federal fire disaster funds being worked on right now in D.C., and by the best estimates, we should be eligible for about $50 million to backfill our fire fund, and that’s another reason this special session seems speculative,” Doane said.

Both Doane and Hinebauch also said that cutting some $225 million from the state’s budget, which Bullock has highlighted as the target, “seems like a lot until you break it down,” noting that amount only equates to 2.5 percent of the state’s $10 billion budget for the biennium.

With that in mind, both of Dawson County’s legislators said they have no appetite for raising any taxes. Bullock has proposed raising about $75 million in additional tax revenue. Some of those proposals — like raising the tax on car rentals or raising the state’s hotel bed tax — would largely fall on out-of-state visitors, not Montanans, but both remain firm in their opposition to casting a vote that would raise any taxes.

“Under the scope that the governor has laid out, I don’t see anything there that’s appealing,” Doane said of Bullock’s tax increase proposals. “I just don’t see where the votes are going to come from to get that to pass.”

“I’m not voting for any tax increases, I know that,” Hinebauch flatly said.

Doane said he thinks there are ways legislators can shore up some accounts by taking or borrowing from others. 

“We can do some budget transfers and things beyond the scope of the governor’s authority,” he said. “Most of it I think is going to be transfers to different accounts.”

One fund Doane has an eye on is some $30 million he said the state has set aside in a fund for a private prison in Shelby that the state has been paying an extra $12 per day per prisoner to the prison’s owners for housing state prisoners in order to exercise a future option to buy the prison. Doane added that it’s his understanding that the prison’s owners have approached the state about extending their contract and “starting over” with the optional purchase payments, which he said would free the state to take that money and plug it in somewhere else, something Doane said “seems like a no-brainer.”

With that being said, both Doane and Hinebauch said they believe the whole mess could have been avoided if Bullock had managed the state’s finances better, saying they believe the state has plenty of revenue already to work with if managed properly.

“We’ve got a $5 billion budget per year, and that’s $10,000 per man, woman and child per biennium, and I think that’s plenty, and it’s way more than we can afford,” Hinebauch said.

“To me, this isn’t a revenue problem, this is just a cash management problem,” Doane said. “This isn’t a crisis that needs to be addressed right now at this moment, this is a money management issue.”

The special legislative session will cost the state more money, and Doane said he hopes it doesn’t end up being a huge waste of time and more of the state’s money.

“I just hope it isn’t a wasted trip,” Doane said. “I hope we accomplish some things that are actually worthwhile.”

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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