HELENA – Scores of citizens – and Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget director – urged state lawmakers Wednesday to consider filling the state’s $227 million budget hole with something other than just spending cuts.
At a hearing on proposed budget cuts of 10 percent to most state agencies, they told the Legislative Finance Committee that lawmakers should consider meeting in special session to approve some type of new tax revenue to cover the shortfall.
“I’m looking for … all of you guys to come together for a special session and come up with a balanced budget that works for all Montanans – a budget that is not solely based on cuts, but also revenues,” said Bonnie Kelley of Missoula.
Kelley, appearing in a wheelchair, said she relies on state-funded personal assistance care to help her live her life.
The bipartisan panel is scheduled to vote Thursday on recommendations for how Gov. Steve Bullock should proceed on the proposed budget cuts. He has the power to cut state general fund spending up to 10 percent to balance the budget.
Bullock, however, has said he’s willing to work with legislators to find a solution that would include both spending cuts and some revenue increases.
His budget director, Dan Villa, also told the committee Wednesday that in past Montana budget crises, the governor and the Legislature have done just that – and strongly suggested that’s the preferred solution now.
“I would venture to guess that there’s not a single person sitting around this table today that is supportive of the entire 9.57 percent reduction (proposed by state agencies),” he said. “There is a better way, and I think we are on the right track to figuring it out.”
He also called the proposed spending cuts “horrendous” and “awful,” but said the Bullock administration is required by law to put them forth.
Approving any revenue increases to help balance the budget would require action by the Legislature in special session, since it’s not scheduled to meet in regular session until 2019.
Leaders of the Legislature’s Republican majority have said they’re not interested in raising any taxes, and that Bullock should proceed with some version of spending cuts.
Yet Bullock, a Democrat, told MTN News this week that he’s still hopeful that enough Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature could agree to a budget solution that involves more than across-the-board cuts.
Villa also outlined to the committee the main reasons behind the budget crisis: Tax revenue that is not keeping up with normal growth in state spending and the most expensive firefighting season in state history.
The state has spent $68 million on firefighting costs this year, exhausting fire and emergency funds that had totaled $48 million and creating a $20 million shortfall.
He said while the state’s economy is mostly strong and unemployment low, the current tax system is bringing in revenue at about 4.6 percent of the state’s gross domestic product – compared to about 5.6 percent from 1990-2004.
Much of Wednesday’s testimony came from people involved in health care and human services, arguing that the proposed $240 million reduction in human services – including $136 million in federal matching funds – would take away vital health care for vulnerable Montanans.
“Please consider alternatives to the drastic cuts in these services,” said Bill Bekemeyer, representing St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula and St. Joseph Hospital in Polson.