HELENA – As Montana lawmakers complete work on the state’s $10 billion, two-year budget, they’re also planning to insert a new wrinkle that could end up cutting – or adding – millions of dollars in spending in the future.

It’s an elaborate set of budget “trigger language,” to drop or add as many as two dozen specific programs, depending on how much tax revenue comes in during the next year.

“If revenue comes in low, it actually generates up to four different levels of cuts,” says Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the chair of the Senate’s main budget committee. “Through a series of days, we’ve kind of negotiated what’s on each level.”

Some of these changes would be relatively minimal, such as chopping $180,000 from the governor’s office to fund the Board of Visitors, which inspects institutions like the Montana State Hospital.

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Others, however, are substantial.

Programs and funds on the potential chopping block include $7 million that pay human-service providers, a 1 percent raise for state employees, payments to the private insurer that manages Montana’s expanded Medicaid program, and an expansion of assisted-living beds for poor senior citizens.

Another proposed trigger says if tax revenue doesn’t meet a certain level by August of this year, Gov. Steve Bullock could dip into a special state firefighting fund and take as much as $30 million to finance general government in the two-year budget period that starts in July.

The trigger language is in 23 pages of draft amendments for Senate Bill 261, which also devises a new budget reserve fund that can be used in the future to offset drops in tax revenue.

Jones said the amendments may be folded into the bill Tuesday, during a House-Senate conference committee.

The amendments also say that at least three programs would be funded only if revenue exceeds a certain level this year: Money for public libraries across the state, higher wages for certain “direct care” workers in homes for the disabled, and forest-management projects on state land.

“In the event that revenue is higher, there were some things that we thought we could not go ahead and approve all the way through,” Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, told MTN News Monday. “But in the event revenue is higher than we expected, then we would trigger a couple of things in, for some additional spending.”

Ballance notes that if the Legislature’s revenue estimate for the next two years is correct, none of the cuts will happen.

“We don’t believe it’s wrong,” she says of lawmakers’ revenue estimate. “But in the event that it is, we would trigger out some of the spending that we had planned.”

She says if the tax revenue comes in lower than expected, lawmakers didn’t want to come back to Helena next year for a special session to make budget cuts.

With the trigger language, those cuts already are identified, she says.

Ballance says Republicans negotiated the potential cuts – or additions – with the budget office of the governor, a Democrat.

Some of the other changes that could happen, if revenue doesn’t meet certain levels by this summer:

  • A 0.5 percent, across-the-board cut in all general fund appropriations.
  • About $1.3 million for statewide library resources.
  • About $1.2 million for a Montana Historical Society research center.
  • Transfers of money from the state lodging tax account.
  • Nearly $2 million each in cuts for the Addictive and Mental Disorder Division and the Developmental Services Division, within the state human-service agency.
  • For secondary vocational education, $1 million in cuts.
  • About $3 million a year of data-for-achievement payments to public schools.

The proposed cuts are in different tiers, some of which occur only if the revenue falls below certain level.

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