By John Musgrove
When it becomes apparent that the budget for fiscal year 2003 was seriously out of balance, legislators begin considering a special session. Sen. Cobb's attempts for a session were superseded by Gov. Martz's reluctant call for a special session to begin Aug. 5. That session ended sometime after 1:30 Sunday morning. Those of us new to special sessions went into it thinking we were merely going to perform triage on an ailing budget when, in fact, it turned into butchering. Nearly $57 million are cut or transferred within HB 2, the appropriations bill, so that the ending fund balance would meet state law.
Any number of methods could have been used to balance the budget, including cuts, transfers, finding new revenue sources, increasing several old forms of taxes, or imposing new taxes. Good suggestions for implementing all of these in various combinations were part of initial discussions, but it was soon apparent to all of us that the majority party was only going to make cuts or fund transfers. No other solution was allowed serious consideration. Was this the most prudent choice? Only time can tell.
One representative was quoted as saying that "We came up with short-term solutions." I might add that a number of those cuts may turn out to be short-sighted as well. Several of the cuts were made to programs that get matching funds from the federal government at various ratios for matching, so damage to these programs is compounded by losing the federal match. Also, some agencies or programs within agencies may be so severely cut that their services to the public will be less efficient. One account of the cuts called them savings: Cuts in state support to the university system, including an across-the-board reduction in overall and personnel budgets. Savings: $9 million. I will tell you flat out without the power of prognostication that this cut will not be a savings. To the contrary, it will cause severe damage to our state in several areas including economic development.
The majority party saved funds for the Office of Economic Development and they added back into the budget monies for local economic development programs. All these are needed if we are going to improve our economy; however, more elements are included in the formula for economic recovery than just having an Office of Economic Development. Some of these were cut drastically. The amount of $4 million was cut from job training and job services. K-12 and higher education were cut too much. How long will our recovery take when we weaken the tools to hasten recovery? A government official from Ireland visiting the United States was asked how they made such a remarkable recovery. His response: education, education, education. Can Montana ever follow Ireland's example if we don't change our attitude about education? Raiding technology funds, job-training and job service funds, and other education funds will prove to be extremely shortsighted.
The special session is over. We have to see if the decisions made by the majority party in the Legislature will solve our immediate problem. And if the national economy doesn't improve significantly, in a few short months in January 2003, our state will have to solve a $250 million problem. Since most of the cuts and transfers have been used, we are all going to have to work together for more complex creative solutions.