By Rep. John E. Witt, House District 89
The 2002 special session came to an end about 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 11. When we adjourned, there was an audible sigh of relief from within the Capitol, but the atmosphere was clouded. Not many were satisfied with what had taken place.
We went there with a job to do and that is what we did. Walking in Monday morning I knew we needed $45 million to fill the budget gap, but within two days, the gap had increased to $57 million. Because I serve on the Appropriations Committee, the previous week I had spent three days in Helena working with that committee attending hearings on budget-cutting recommendations that had come down from the governor's office and the budget director. This was the start of the process to make the needed cuts to bring the budget back into compliance. The recommendations included cuts to the agricultural experiment stations, Extension Service, weed funding, conservation districts, and also to the Growth Through Age program and others that are very important to the agriculture community. Other programs that are important to our communities were on the chopping block, like as the Historical and State Library, K-12, higher education, and public health funding. I know that when you want to save programs that are very important to the agricultural communities across Montana, you had better find a way to fund them or the Appropriations Committee will vote them out. Basically, if there is no funding, the programs are gone. You reach for pots of money to save programs that are favored.
Last session I had worked to trim the $32 million state travel budget by 25 percent and the Legislature agreed. Checking with the state auditor and studying reports, it was apparent some agencies had not cut their travel costs, but actually increased their travel costs even though the Legislature had mandated the decrease in this area. Another area that had not been looked into for years was "supplies." I used the information from the Legislative Audit Division to amend House Bill 9 and HB 10 to refund the Weed Program, conservation districts and others mentioned above. These amendments appropriated about $10 million of revenue, of which $2 million could be amended into HB 2, the general fund, earmarked to go into the Flex Fund for education.
The Appropriations Committee voted in favor of doing this. Once the special session begins these amendments need tracking as the process takes them in and out several times. We were successful. They made their way through. At one point, we lost the $2 million earmarked for the Education Flex Plan, but by adjournment, we had replaced $4 million of $4.6 million cut to the Flex.
House Democrats offered no HB 2 or general fund amendment that would have decreased state spending, but they did offer 14 amendments to put back $14 million in spending. Republicans held the line and did not increase taxes to the people of Montana. With the drought over the past six or seven years, depending on where you live, Sept. 11 and the economic crash in capital gains, Montana is in no economic condition to raise taxes on its citizens. Property tax delinquency is increasing in many of the 56 Montana counties and this has a direct impact on each community. In some counties the delinquent taxes have doubled over each of the last three years. Without the income, how much more can you afford to pay? The situation is grim.
Sen. Butcher, Rep. Thomas and I carried a petition supporting U.S. Rep. Dennis Rehberg's "Intent to pass House Report 4822" urging the Secretary of the Interior to clarify the boundaries of the Upper Missouri River Breaks Monument and to exclude the 81,000 acres of private property targeted for future federal acquisition for the monument. We had very strong support from the Republicans, but very poor support from the Democrat legislators signing on to this petition. Private property rights should not be a partisan issue, regardless of who is carrying the message. It was a disappointing show of representation for the property owner by several who did not have the welfare of their constituency in mind.
The special session concluded its work by making the $57 million in cuts and transfers. These cuts and transfers did not cut any agency base budgets, but reduce the new budget requests approved in the 2001 general session. The amount of $57 million is a small amount when you compare it to the needs going into the 2003 general session. We are looking at a projected $250 million shortfall for the next biennium. We will be looking at program cuts and more budget cutting this next session.
There is no question, the 2001 session did a poor job of holding the line on spending. With a proposed surplus, it is very easy to spend. Since the 2001 session, the state of Montana has increased the number of full-time employees by more than 400 people. At present we have nearly 20,000 state employees. If the state of Montana is to be funded at today's level, we will have to find a new revenue source.
Rep. Alan Olson introduced a proposal to put the coal tax issue to a vote of the people. This proposal would have used 25 percent of the interest that flows into the trust and divert that interest to education. The idea will not break the coal trust and it gives the right to make the decision to the people of Montana. Unfortunately, it failed on a 50-50 vote. I think we will see this proposal again.
There is a lot more to be said and to be discussed. Before the session, I had one constituent who said, "Raise my taxes," but many others told me they could stand no more tax payments and felt the size of government in our state is getting too big.
The bottom line is, all the travel monies are back in, experiment stations and extension is out, weed funding and conservation districts had their funding reinstated, and you can still go to your local courthouse to get your driver's license.
When the hard-working men and women of Montana come up short of funds at the end of the month, they cannot raise their salaries to pay extra bills. They know they must reduce expenses. Montanans expect government to do the same.
My thanks to all of you who contacted me with your concerns and ideas during this past session. You can reach me by mail at 2555 Russell Road, Carter, MT 59420. My phone number is (406) 734-5451 or e-mail me at email@example.com.