HELENA — Most of Montana’s 150 legislators will gather in Helena next week, not for an actual session, but rather a series of briefings and hearings on the coming costs of government services – and how best to pay for them.
“We’ve got to discuss what services we wish for, what services can be provided more effectively and efficiently, and maybe what services need to be eliminated,” said Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad. “And how we plan to pay for this, in a manner that is equitably distributed.”
Jones sponsored one of the bills that’s a keystone for “legislative week,” billed as a chance for lawmakers to immerse themselves in budget and related policy issues.
House Bill 715 dictates a wide-ranging study on “long-term future budget and revenue needs with changing economics and demographics.”
In simpler terms, the study is looking at trends in the big-ticket items funded by government – schools, health care, pension systems, infrastructure – and the revenue that pays for it all.
Tax reform also is on the agenda, with at least one study that will be carried out and completed in the next few months, in time for the regular session of the 2021 Legislature.
Jones and others say it’s time for Montana to delve into these subjects and figure out whether the state’s current tax system can sustain what people want from government.
Some have said the week is a dry run for possible annual sessions of the Legislature.
But most leaders who spoke with MTN News said that’s a topic without much support, and that the focus of the week will be schooling lawmakers on how they can work together on the big budget issues.
“I’m thinking of it as an opportunity for budget and policy discussions that a lot of legislators don’t otherwise get,” said Sen. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman. “If you serve on a finance committee, you hardly ever hear about policy, and vice-versa. So, for a lot of us, this is supposed to be more of a melding of those two areas.”
A dozen interim legislative committees, on topics ranging from energy to education, will hold meetings throughout next week at the Capitol.
But the big new events will be Tuesday and Wednesday, with overviews of the status of the state budget, revenue and other major issues.
House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner, D-Great Falls, said the week is ripe for lawmakers to bone up on subjects they don’t usually see – but that he hopes it won’t be an attempt by some to put the kibosh on certain ideas they don’t like.
Yet he said one idea that deserves to be left on the shelf is a statewide sales tax, which is roundly opposed by Democrats.
Jones and other Republicans said it’s premature to be talking about a sales tax. But Jones said it’s becoming clear that property taxes are getting overburdened, and that something has to give.
“I personally believe if we do nothing, the property tax is simply going to grow out of control, and that the residential and other property taxpayers can’t stand it,” Jones said. “There needs to be a discussion held – is (our) tax structure and the growth we would forecast sustainable?”
Pomnichowski said the studies influenced by legislative week could form the basis for some major proposals at the 2021 Legislature. Yet she noted that the fate of those proposals also hinges on something else: The 2020 elections.
“November 3, 2020, is going to matter a lot,” she said. “It matters who sits in these chairs and what they think individually, and what they’ll consider from these recommendations.”