The Speaker Chimes In
The Montana Legislature is now 1/3 of the way done, and as your representative and Speaker of the Montana House, I wanted to drop you all an update about what’s going on. This session has been much calmer than the previous three sessions I have been involved in, and that is because frankly, there is no money. In 2011, we left Helena with a $500 million budget surplus. In 2013, there was a $350 million budget surplus, and in 2015 the legislature left town with a $300 million budget surplus. Throughout the last election cycle, you heard Governor Bullock campaign for re-election on the fact that, under his leadership, “the state had $300 million in the bank.” Well, guess what. That was what politicians call an “untruth.” The money is all gone. In the last two years, the Bullock administration in Helena has continued to grow government at the top levels, hiring more and more “supervisors” and “administrators” in Helena at $90,000 plus per year plus benefits. This, combined with plummeting commodity prices and the resulting dropping income tax revenue to the state, led to our state having almost no budget surplus left when the Legislature got to Helena on Jan. 2. The budget situation was so bad, that under state law, Governor Bullock should have called us into special session last fall, like Governor Schweitzer did in 2007, to fix the budget. However, because he was in the middle of a re-election, Governor Bullock chose not to fix the budget and instead kept telling Montanans that things were peachy.
So, we no longer have a pile of “extra” taxpayer money to fight over. We will pass a balanced budget, because our state constitution says we must. Just like your home or business, the state can’t spend more than it takes in. But because the amount the state takes in is falling, our budget committees are looking at targeted cuts in certain state agencies in order to balance the budget. We will get it done, and we will finally get to cut some of the fat in state government.
On a more positive note, I am pleased to report that the full House and Senate have passed a comprehensive K-12 funding bill, which provides a modest inflationary budget increase to Montana’s public schools. This bill is now on Governor Bullock’s desk, hopefully awaiting his signature into law. Typically, school funding bills wait until the end of the legislative session in late April for passage, and are a huge fight. Under my leadership as Speaker for the last two sessions, the Montana legislature has passed these school funding bills almost immediately in the session, giving our local school boards and superintendents stability and time to plan and budget for next year.
Also, I am pleased to report we are making progress on infrastructure. When I say “infrastructure,” I am talking about water systems, sewer systems, roads, and bridges. Funding infrastructure has been a major issue for the last 3 sessions, and getting some Bakken oilfield impact infrastructure funding to northeast Montana has been a particular focus of mine. Unfortunately, Governor Bullock vetoed our bipartisan infrastructure bill in 2013, and in 2015 the infrastructure funding bill died by 1 vote. This session, funding infrastructure is proving to be much more difficult due to the budget situation we find ourselves in. Simply put, there is no extra cash and the only way we are going to pay for any infrastructure this session is by either: 1) bonding (borrowing money), or 2) raising taxes.
Due to the extraordinary need, I may swallow hard and vote for some bonding to fund infrastructure, which I have only done one other time (last session). However, I will only support bonding for infrastructure if it is for truly essential infrastructure (water, sewer, roads, etc.). I won’t support bonding if it is going to pay for more government buildings in Helena or pork projects that Governor Bullock wants included as “infrastructure.”
What I won’t support is raising taxes to fund infrastructure. One of the main proposals to balance the budget and pay for infrastructure floating around the hallways of the Capitol is to raise the state’s gasoline tax. What that means is, now that the state government has overspent and grown state government beyond what we can pay for, the state government now wants a tax increase on every gallon of gas or diesel you put in your vehicle to pay for it. Oh, and we’ll also raise that tax on every gallon of gas or diesel you put in your vehicle to pay for a new museum in Helena and a new gym for Montana State University in Bozeman. And we’ll call those buildings “infrastructure” in the hopes that everyone will vote for it. I absolutely will NOT vote for a gas tax increase. Agriculture commodity prices are at the lowest prices in generations. The oil boom is busted. The coal industry in Montana is decimated. Now is not the time to raise taxes on every family in Montana to pay for a state government that has bloated under 12 years of Democrat administration in Helena.
Austin Knudsen is a Republican member of the Montana Legislature and current Speaker of the House. He was elected to House District 36.