A group of legislators speaking at a forum in Havre Thursday had differing views on what the tone will be during the next Montana Legislature.
Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, said the budget will dominate the session, and how to deal with a predicted $300 million to $400 million shortfall.
“What will the Legislature look like in the next session? Probably one word is ugly,” said Black, serving his last term in the Legislature due to term limits.
Black and Reps. Wayne Stahl, R-Saco, and Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, formed the last panel during a discussion of upcoming legislative issues sponsored by Montana State University-Northern and Bear Paw Development Corp. Stahl and Belcourt are running unopposed in the general election.
The fourth member of the panel, Sen. Ken “Kim” Hansen, D-Harlem, who is serving his last term due to term limits, was absent. Moderator Paul Tuss of Bear Paw Development said Hansen still was working on bringing in the harvest on his farm and could not attend.
Stahl and Belcourt had different takes from Black on the tone of the session.
“I honestly don’t believe it’s going to be a nasty session,” Stahl said. “Usually when sessions become very bickering and partisan is when there’s some money to spend and everybody wants to fight over where to spend it and who gets it.”
Belcourt agreed that the budget would be the biggest issue, but made a call to find bipartisan solutions.
“I think we need to put down the party politics, the Republicans and Democrats, both sides, (stop) their internal fighting,” he said. “I think if you look at the last session, I think we did a pretty good thing keeping the middle ground moving. We need to focus on the positive things.”
Black said the next budget situation looks grim. He quoted Gov. Brian Schweitzer saying people who say there is a deficit are “damn liars.”
“You know, technically, that’s exactly right,” Black said. “Montana at the current state is not in a deficit position, but we are going through any cash surplus we had very, very rapidly.”
He cited a report by Moodies and Global Insight predicting slow economic growth in Montana, with a return to the pre-recession levels not expected until 2015.
The Legislative Fiscal Division is predicting revenues to be 8 percent to 10 percent short of funding Montana’s $4 billion budget, Black said.
“Were going to have to make cuts or were going to have to raise taxes,” he said. “We don’t have much choice.”
Black pointed out that the three largest portions of the Montana budget are education, health and human services, and the state Department of Corrections.
“So which of those three do you really want to cut?” he asked. “I mean, it’s a really major problem.
“It may take a combination of cuts and raising taxes,” Black added.
Stahl said it could get worse than it looks. If the state adds keeping a $300 million to $400 million reserve on top of the projected shortfalls of the current level, it could mean looking at a budget with the base amounts set at 85 percent of the previous budget.
He said he thinks the only option will be to prioritize programs and determine what the minimum level of funding would be for each to be able to operate efficiently.
“We’ll go down the list, and when we run out of money everything that’s left over probably is going to go away,” he said. “I’ve never believed making a program almost nonexistet and making it so it can’t do its job, so its nonefficient, and I’d rather see some programs eliminated.”
Belcourt, citing his education and inspirational teachers at MSU-Northern, said education has to be a priority.
“I think education is going to be a must for everybody,” he said.
Working on alternative energy also is crucial, he said, citing work at Northern on biufuel research including tests being conducted by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
“I realize coal is there, but we need to look at some alternative industries,” he said.
He also said the state needs to focus on agriculture, finding some way to help the young people of the state stay in or move into that industry.
Stahl, while pointing out that developing new technology and industries is extremely expensive, got behind developing alternative energy.
“We need to do our part in the state of Montana to somehow help further those things, so we can actually use fuels that we can guarentee will be there for our kids and our grandkids,” he said.
The focus of the state needs to be on energy, the economy and creating jobs, Stahl said.
“I’m in favor of do it all and do it now, or we get behind the curve,” he said.
Black said he believes the only solution is develop harvesting of natural resources, including coal, oil, natural gas and wind energy. New electrical transmission lines and petroleum transmission pipelines will help with that, he added.
“Without those lines we cannot grow our natural resources,” Black said. “They’re absolutely essential.”