It comes as no surprise that much of the budget surplus that Montana has enjoyed for the last eight years has come from energy and natural resource development. Oil and gas efforts across Montana, especially our eastern-most counties, has provided opportunity across the state and revenue flows to help fund our government services on the state and local level. It comes with surprise and dismay that Gov. Bullock chose to veto a strong bipartisan bill, House Bill 218, which provides much-needed assistance to our eastern residents.
There is no question that towns along the North Dakota border are suffering from increased population trends related to natural resource development. There is also no question that activity levels in Montana have been stable now for nearly 10 years and that much of the impacts we feel now come from workers living in Montana and working in the energy sector in North Dakota. HB 218 infused $15 million dollars into existing state programs to offer direct aid for infrastructure development for towns along the North Dakota border. HB 218 goes on to offer $10 million in aid each year for the next eight years from the share of mineral royalties that Montana receives from oil and gas development on federal lands.
The bill passed both houses of our Legislature with only eight opposing votes. Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed the bill and listed several reasons:
• He wanted a target budget surplus of $300 million dollars;
• Eastern Montana got money from the school funding bill;
• Eastern Montana got two water systems funded;
• Eastern Montana got money from the Treasure State Endowment Program;
• Republicans would not vote to bond the infrastructure.
Really Gov. Bullock? Everyone who works near the Capitol and follows budget issues knows that revenue estimates for the next two fiscal years are due the end of July and they will be much higher than your target of $300 million. The school funding bill allowed eastern Montana school districts to keep more of the money they already should have gotten. It’s clearly obvious that efforts to redistribute school oil and gas money from eastern Montana in 2011 were grossly unfair. Senate Bill 175, the school funding bill, simply partially corrected an unfair decision from two years ago. Water system projects have been in the pipeline (so to speak) for years and are developing nicely. Water project revenue brings clean water to all Montanans.
You have stated that eastern Montana got its share of TSEP revenue, but projects east of Jordan actually received $1.6 million less than in 2011. Of the $33,983,538 appropriated in House Bill 11 only $3 million dollars made it to projects east of Jordan. Finally, there are many who believe that bonding for needs when money is readily available is not wise policy.
It is important for the people of Montana to remember that the 63rd legislative session did something truly remarkable. It passed the main budget bill, House Bill 2, out of the House with a unanimous vote with no amendments. That is a testament to bipartisan craftsmanship, understanding and trust.
That trust was shattered by the veto of HB 218. It is time that legislators, Republican and Democrat, band together like they did during the session and override the veto on HB 218. Eastern Montana needs the help, HB 218 is modest and does not hurt Montana’s surplus. Most importantly it is the right thing to do for the part of our state that's creating jobs and revenue that benefit us all.
(Will Deschamps of Missoula is a lifelong Montanan, a small businessman and a Marine. He is chairman of the Montana Republican Party.)