MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA Lawmakers could have more than $900 million in excess revenue to work with when they arrive in Helena in January according to a new analysis, a figure the governor warned should be viewed with skepticism and caution. The analysis shows the state should have more than $500 million when the current twoyear budget ends June of 2007. It estimates the surplus will rise to $903 million two years after that the spending period covered by the budget lawmakers start drafting in January. The projection is based on a steady flow of tax revenues based on current experience, and an assumption of what it will cost to keep government running at current levels of service. Gov. Brian Schweitzer dismissed the Legislative Fiscal Division projection as guesswork that could change radically in the face of volatile prices for oil and minerals, and uncertain agricultural markets. He said lawmakers shouldn’t convene in January thinking they “are going to spend to oblivion.” “We’ve had a good fiscal policy, we’ve built a little bit of money set aside and we’re going to keep it there,” Schweitzer said. “Don’t come to town thinking you are gong to spend a bunch of money because I am not sure the money will be there in 2009.” Already, both Democrats and Republicans have rolled out tax breaks and initiatives that could dig deep into that excess. The surplus estimate does not take into account those proposed initiatives, or plans pitched by the governor that include a $400 property tax rebate for Montana homeowners. Additionally, Schweitzer likes to remind lawmakers that the state still has a $1.3 billion pension shortfall that needs attention. “The brighter picture is primarily due to strong growth in individual and corporate income tax and oil and gas tax revenues” during recent years, legislative analysts wrote. “It is emphasized that this is a conservative and responsible estimate for planning purposes, but as more information becomes available before the 2007 session, the available balance could change significantly.” Terry Johnson, a legislative fiscal analyst with roughly 30 years of experience with the Legislature, said it is the largest projected surplus he can recall. “It’s never been that high,” he said. He notes the projection could “change dramatically,” if oil or commodity prices fall.