By Gov. Judy Martz
Last week, Montana's 150 legislators met to trim $57 million from the state government's budget. And, just six days after the special session began, they balanced the budget without increasing taxes on hardworking Montanans.
This letter is written first and foremost to say "thank you" to those individuals. Montanans can be proud of their citizen legislators who left their families, farms, jobs and communities to meet in Helena for a week to tackle a budget problem that faces almost every state in the nation.
During this special session, difficult decisions were made to decrease state government spending. We are spending more money on government programs than we are taking in. Some think it's easier to raise taxes than to hold the line on tax increases for Montanans who are already 46th in per capita income. But the easy choices aren't always the best choices. So, as you see your legislators at the local coffee shop or in church on Sunday, please take a minute to simply say "thanks." Their work often goes unnoticed. Rest assured, each and every legislator comes to Helena to do what they think is best for their constituents. They are well deserving of a pat on the back from each of us.
The second reason for this letter is to begin discussions about the upcoming 2003 regular legislative session and the even tougher choices we all face. The reductions we saw this past week are only the first step in the process of reducing the size of government in order to live within our means. Our nation's economy is in recession. Montana is no different. We know that you expect us to manage government's budget like you manage your family's budget. That means living within our existing income knowing that revenues are not coming in as expected. Given the situation, the best approach is to adjust our spending rather than asking Montanans to send more money to Helena in these tough times. There comes a point when citizens, families, and businesses can no longer afford more taxes. Instead of trying to tax ourselves out of a deficit, we must look for creative solutions to move Montana forward.
The economy is truly hurting across this nation, and when that occurs, it is even more important that Montana's business environment remains competitive. When the economy is tight, it isn't just government who suffers. Business margins are tight as well. As a business owner in these tough times, would you choose to locate your company in a state that increases taxes on families and businesses to balance its budget? Or would you move to a state that understands that business growth is the only true way to turn around an economic recession and have financially strong families?
We're competing with other states for a piece of a shrinking economic pie. In these tight times, businesses are taking a close look at their bottom line. Government must do the same. We must identify programs that are impeding the ability for the private sector to grow and succeed. If Montana takes the right approach, we may just position ourselves to lead the way as a center for business in the future, ensuring the financial health of our families in the process.
It is not only businesses and government that are facing economic challenges. Farmers and ranchers are suffering through the fifth straight year of drought. The key to getting out of this economic recession is to revive our economy, both in our traditional industries and emerging ones. We must ensure that an environment exists in which Montana industries can grow and continue to provide good paying jobs for every Montanan. This requires discipline to avoid easy solutions that will hurt our state in the long run. If we make snap decisions, we may again become a state that is known only for its scenic beauty, and not for its ability to build good paying jobs in a quality environment for its citizens.
While our spending reductions were difficult in the special session, all segments of government were willing to reduce spending and increase efficiencies to help bring our budget back into balance. In the coming months, we will again be examining current programs and working to find ways to streamline government. Government expenditures have grown beyond our ability to pay for them. If we don't limit our excess now, our children will be shouldering the burden of our inability to live within our means. As we move into the next legislative session, each of us must ask ourselves tough questions: Can we afford higher taxes to fund the growth of existing programs? What services can we provide rather than increasing the cost of government? What are we willing to pay for government services? What services can we do without because we can no longer afford them?
In January, legislators will again come to Helena on your behalf to address these ongoing budget challenges. While during this special session we had to trim $57 million from the state budget, in the regular session, we will need to trim approximately $250 million. As we face the continued task of prioritizing our expenditures, you may soon begin to hear "don't touch my program; eliminate the other guy," or "tax the other' guy, not me." You can expect discussions about how government can be reorganized to run more efficiently, the possibility of programs being eliminated, and talk of potential tax increases. We will look for every opportunity to streamline government and reduce its spending, and commit to look for creative, innovative solutions that limit impacts on household budgets, while ensuring that government lives within its means. Although the decisions will again be difficult, we look forward to a healthy debate resulting in strong, long-term solutions that move Montana forward.