Montana's Budget Problems
The State of the Montana Budget
Side by Side
In this ongoing segment, Glasgow-based columnists Michael Burns and Alec Carmichael have agreed to square off on issues of national and international significance. Less a debate format than an opportunity to feature in-depth discussion, "Side by Side" will feature structured analysis of current events complete with fact-checking, editorial support and, when necessary, informal arbitration. To suggest a topic for our duo, write to [email protected].
“You know things are tough when students are asking for higher taxes on alcohol.” This, spoken by a college student, is one of Governor Bullock’s favorite lines from the current legislative session regarding Montana’s hotly disputed budget dilemma. The sentiment was a plea from one young adult to protect his university from the deep budget cuts this legislative session. Trimming the fat is the name of the game and everything from education to elderly care has been put on the line. There was a sense of relief last session when it was predicted we would have a 300 million dollar budget surplus but now the wiggle room has vanished. The calculations were wrong.
Montana has the constitutional obligation to balance its budget and not operate in the red. Many other states don’t have this begrudging blessing but it keeps us efficient and as honest as possible. However, as Speaker Knudsen wrote to our district a few weeks ago, “the money is all gone.” The governor campaigned well into the fall, claiming we had a big cushion to fall back onto, all the while knowing this wasn’t true. This session has tested the creative limits of balancing a budget. Last week, the House of Representatives approved a 10.2 billion dollar budget plan and it is being sent to the Senate for possible revision and voted on before reaching the governor’s desk. As it stands, 23.3 million dollars have been cut from university education and Bullock stated that the Board of Regents may have to close a campus. Other options would include cutting programs or raising tuition. Up until the very end, elderly care funding had drastic cuts. Miraculously, 35 million dollars of services was restored for nursing homes, the elderly and disabled. Our governor would like to see millions of dollars spent on luxuries such as a new museums and other facades of prosperity but now is not the time.
About one fifth of Montana revenues come from state income taxes. This is something some states can only dream of at this point with income taxes as high as ¾ of other states’ budgets. Taxes could be raised to make up some of our losses but it would be political suicide for almost any politician who attempted that. Montanans enjoy their independence and it is enjoyed most when the government keeps its hand in its own pockets. Speaker Knudsen has proposed a 10 million dollar low interest loan to the city of Colstrip to keep their important operations running after taking a severe hit from being sued by multiple environmental organizations last year. These groups alleged degradation of air quality through pollution. Keeping industries afloat, such as this, is vital to our economy and to the restoration of our surplus.
The EPA under the Obama administration all but nearly shut down coal and other natural resources across the country the last two years. Being a rural state, when these commodities rise and fall, so do we. They along with agriculture are our state’s greatest source of pride and revenue. To trace it, this is where the calculations of a lofty 300 million dollar surplus took their missteps. Knowing this, these areas deserve as much treatment as possible to thrive. Coal is one of the cheapest and cleanest forms of energy and without it, our revenues drop and our utility bills go up. The Bakken boom busted but is predicted to make a comeback as soon as this year. Our infrastructure plan must have accommodations for this in Northeast Montana so it can thrive at its highest levels, and in return, Montana can thrive at its highest levels.
The Trump administration appears to be shutting down much of the EPAs bad policies, mostly executive orders from the previous president. Hopefully, confidence can be restored for our most vital industries but until then we carefully mind our finances. It may sound rudimentary but the most practical way for Montana to restore itself to a surplus is to keep these industries vigorated and to continue to be fiscally responsible.