By Tim Leeds
After spending six hurried days finding ways to save the state about $57 million, local legislators gave the special session of the Legislature a mixed review.
"Things could have been worse, things could have been better," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy said today. "I thought we did a pretty decent job in the end making some effort to get some things funded."
Republican Gov. Judy Martz called the session to make up for a $57 million deficit in the state budget.
"I think it went as well as we can expect in a short session," Rep. Merlin Wolery, R-Rudyard, said. "I don't think there's any way to not do what we did."
Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, said the Republicans, the majority party in both houses, seemed to have their decisions made before the session started.
"They had it lined out and they followed their plan and did it without our help," Musgrove said.
Tester said the estimated amount of the cuts made in the special session plus $3.5 million made previously by Martz include $6.7 million from K-12 education, $14.5 million from higher education and $15.1 million from health and human services.
"That's real money to a lot of those programs," he said.
The Legislature freed up some money by moving funds from one account to another, Wolery said. That's a one-time fix that can't be used in the next regular session, when lawmakers face an even larger deficit.
Musgrove said he has concerns because of the lack of public input at a special session. He said he is especially worried about the cuts to Montana's education system.
"I think we're doing the people of Montana a disservice by weakening their ability to do the things necessary for education," he said.
The cuts made in the special session, in particular from the higher education budget, were pretty grim, Sen. Greg Jergeson, D-Chinook, said. The university system will probably split the cost of the $14.5 million cut between reducing programs and raising tuition, he said.
Across-the-board cuts made both in the special session and by the governor have the tendency to paralyze government, Tester said. The end result is fewer people trying to provide the same services.
"I think we need to start cutting services and stop expecting one person to do the job of two," he said.
The solutions were relatively simple compared to what will have to be done in the 2003 session, Wolery said.
"When the Legislature reconvenes in five months, it's going to have its hands full," he said.
Conservative estimates project the budget shortfall will be about $250 million, Jergeson said. A tax cut proposed by Martz could raise that to $350 million, he said.
Making up the projected shortfall will probably take a combination of new taxes and cuts, Wolery said.
New taxes were proposed this summer, but they didn't stand a chance at the short session, he said.
"They will be back again next session and will get a harder look," he said.
Musgrove said he received a lot of telephone calls, from both Republicans and Democrats, saying they could accept a few small tax increases, generally in specific areas like cigarette taxes, bed taxes and car rental taxes.
The Republicans might be saving that discussion for the 2003 Legislature, Musgrove said.
It's difficult to find specific areas to tax that won't bother most people, he said.
"They're looking for ones that are painless and there's no such thing," he said.