Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney speaks on the subject of state budgeting recently in the Big Horn County News archive room.

Lt. gov. visits Hardin, discusses budget gap impact on Big Horn County

Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney dropped by the Big Horn County News office recently to discuss scheduled cuts in the state budget that will likely affect residents of the local area and beyond. Withstanding the effects of the deficit will be difficult, he said, but it can be managed if some alternatives to the cuts are found.
 
To that end, on Monday, Gov. Steve Bullock called the Montana Legislature into a special session on Tuesday, Nov. 14 to carve out what he and Cooney see as a less harmful budget solution.
 
“If we follow a path of responsibly managing this now,” he said, “we can make a lot of progress without sacrificing all the good progress that we’ve made.” 
 
Cooney and Bullock are traveling through Montana to raise awareness of what Bullock wrote was “an unusual budget situation” sparked by the most expensive fire season in state history. In addition, the governor’s website states, market prices for fossil fuels and agricultural products have dropped over the years, and tax breaks for the wealthiest people and companies have prevented the state from using this avenue to gain money.
 
“We have what appears to be a $227 million deficit and, by state law, we have to have it balanced by June 10,” Cooney said. “The governor has to deal with that, one way or another. The only tool that he really has is to make proposed cuts.”
 
Cuts will be taken from the general fund, Cooney said, 85 percent of which goes to three agencies: corrections, education, and health and human services. Because these agencies get the largest share of the general fund, he continued, they will receive the largest cuts.
 
As an example of the possible harm such cuts could cause, Cooney mentioned an exchange he heard between city leaders in Havre, starting with a woman who led its mental health program expressing concern for her patients’ well-being. The chief of police realized that, if mental health patients couldn’t stay at the hospital, he wouldn’t be able to house them in the city’s already-filled jail. Without admittance to the hospital, the school superintendent added, troubled students could be at risk in a state that already has the nation’s highest suicide rate.
 
“The governor flat-out believes [the cuts] will hurt people,” Cooney said. “These cuts – at 10 percent or 9 percent, wherever they will be – will really hurt Montanans. We don’t need to do that.”
 
Members of the Montana House Republican leadership – including Speaker of the House Austin Knudsen – disagree with Cooney as to the root cause of Montana’s budget challenges. In their Oct. 19 guest column, Republican representatives stated “Gov. Steve Bullock and his surrogates are using headline scare tactics to attempt to drum up support for tax increases.”
 
“The truth is, since 2012, general fund revenue is up 14 percent, but at the same time general fund spending is up 32 percent,” Republican leadership wrote. “Our state government is simply spending too much money.”
 
According to the representatives, high-paying natural resource jobs have  been replaced by lower-paying service and tourism jobs, a fact acknowledged by governor’s office budget director Dan Villa. They will not be supporting any tax increases, they stated, and suggested that Democrats in the legislature work with them to expand their tax base instead through development of natural resources and high-paying industries.
 
The Indian Caucus of the Montana Legislature disagreed with Republicans in their response – signed by, among others, Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy of Crow Agency and Rep. Rae Peppers of Lame Deer. In their column, the Indian Caucus stated the Republicans had “callously attacked essential services that benefit working Montanans as ‘government bloat.’”
 
Tribes often struggle to account for “perennially underfunded” federal and state programs that are critical to American Indian communities, the Indian Caucus wrote, despite “severe limitations” to their own ability to levy taxes. 
 
“In our communities, every dollar that supports Montana Indians is essential,” the Indian Caucus wrote. “[Programs provide] funding for public schools, language preservation, economic development and Medicaid expansion; our communities cannot afford to pay the price of political posturing.”
 
The Associated Press reports that the governor’s office has been working with legislative leaders to fix the budget. As of Wednesday, Nov. 1, the article continues, they may have found a solution through the use of strategic budget cuts, temporary tax increases and the movement of funds.
 
According to the AP, governor’s office budget director Dan Villa believes a third of the money necessary to fill the gap – or $75 million – will come from temporary tax increases. Another third, he said, would come through fund transfers and cuts to agencies not under Bullock’s control. The final third would come through cuts to state agencies using a law that allows Bullock to reduce their spending by up to 10 percent.
 
Though Villa stated that he hopes a special session can start before Thanksgiving, Republican Sen. Llew Jones was quoted by the AP as stating: “There will be Republicans, whether temporary or not, who will never vote for tax increases.”
 
Others, he stated, will say, “Look, we got to pay our fire bill and it’s the right thing to do.” 
 
To submit input on balancing the budget to the governor’s office, go online to http://balancedbudget.mt.gov/.
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