Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Alex Ross 

Legislators comment on special session

 

November 10, 2017

Sen. Frank Smith, D-Poplar

Montana lawmakers will return to Helena Monday for a special legislative session to deal with a budget shortfall and reduce the impact of looming budget cuts, and local legislators commented this week on the upcoming session.

Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., called the special session Monday to fill a $227 million hole in the state budget. Unless the Republican-led Legislature and the governor reach a deal a series of across-the-board spending cuts will go into effect that could negatively impact state agencies and essential services.

"I think we are in a spot and something has to be done," said state Sen. Frank Smith, D-Poplar.

"When they start doing essential cuts for different programs like social service programs and the such, it is going to hurt everybody, businesses and all," he added.

Lawmakers will meet in Helena for hearings Monday and the special session will begin at noon Tuesday, a press release from the governor's office said.

The special session will mark the first since 2007 and is the first for some newer members.

"I'm just kind of waiting to see what will transpire," said state Sen. Russ Tempel, R-Chester. "I've never been to one of these so it will be interesting when we get to Helena to see which way the ball bounces."

He added that he was disappointed the governor did not make the 10 percent cuts on his own, and instead decided to call the Legislature into session.

State Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, said he was also disappointed but would return to Helena to partake in the process of fixing the budget.

The shortfall is the result of overly optimistic budget projections, shrinking oil and gas revenue coming into the state and costs associated with an unusually bad wildfire season.

Because the Montana Constitution prevents the state from spending more money then it takes, the governor can ask state agencies to cut their budgets by up to 10 percent.

When he called for the special session, Bullock also released a list of proposals that would balance the budget through a combination of funding transfers, cuts and revenue enhancements.

While local Republicans said Bullock should have made the cuts without calling a special session, local Democrats such as Havre's Rep. Jacob Bachmeier support the special session.

"Simply put, I think calling a special session was the right thing to do and these cuts, if implemented, would be absolutely devastating and we need to do something about that," he said.

The cuts would be on top of cuts already made to state agencies in the 2018-2019 budget.

In the lead-up to this year's legislative session, Bullock in his budget proposed a series of cuts, fund transfers and ideas for revenue enhancers to balance the budget.

The Republican-led Legislature rejected the proposal.

State Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said if lawmakers had taken up Bullock's proposal, state programs would likely have more money and cuts would not be as severe.

Most cuts would be absorbed by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, higher education and the Montana Department of Corrections.

The three areas make up 85 percent of the state budget and would face the largest cuts.

Lawmakers said that they have heard from worried constituents about how cuts could affect them.

State Rep, Jim O'Hara, R-Fort Benton, said he has heard from representatives of the Chouteau County government who are worried the county accessors office could be negatively impacted by the cuts.

"And I would hate to see that go," he said.

O'Hara said the office is staffed by a few employees who could lose their jobs.

Higher education and DPHHS programs are what Bachmeier said he is hearing most about. He said Montana State University system students will already face rising tuition, and if a deal is not reached to mitigate the cuts, tuition hikes could be larger.

Windy Boy said the reductions will hurt Indian Country.

In addition to DPHHS programs and Medicaid, Windy Boy said that in recent decades the federal government has transferred many responsibilities to states.

"So a lot of these programs that have helped Indian Country have been shifted to the states," Windy Boy said.

Tempel said he has heard worries from county governments and hospitals in his district.

He said with the cuts, the state could end up losing federal money because they lack matching funds needed for federal grants.

State Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, said he believes that Bullock and state agencies are purposely proposing cuts to programs that serve the most vulnerable population, in order to pressure the Legislature into raising taxes or not cutting any funding to state programs.

"He is threatening to cut all these services when there is this entire bureaucracy in Helena that can just be slashed," he said.

The governor in his list of proposals made several suggestions on how the state can raise revenue.

Some lawmakers believe the state budget can be balanced without raising taxes.

"I'm not for a tax increase," O'Hara said. "I think we can get through this without raising taxes."

Lang said that while he does not rule out tax increases he is inclined not to support them.

He said a deal should not raise taxes well keeping in place services to constituents and decrease expenditures in Helena.

Smith said there are some tax increases he would back but others he would not. He said a proposal to raise the accommodations tax on rental cars and motel rooms is something he would not support,

He said many people in his northeastern Montana district have to travel to Great Falls, Missoula and Billings to seek medical care, and do so with their families. He said it is difficult enough for family members to make the journey and would be harder if there was an increased tax on lodging.

Tempel said that while he would have to see specifics on any tax increase, he would definitely be against any proposal that would hike property taxes.

Knudsen said he would be against tax hikes, especially temporary ones because he said such increases never end up going away.

Sen. Russ Tempel, R-Chester

"If you are going to increase taxes at least be up front about it and increase taxes," he said.

Bachmeier said efforts to raise revenue do need to be considered. He said he would support an accommodations tax increase temporarily, and would consider supporting a temporary or permanent increase in tobacco or alcohol taxes, depending on how much a proposal increases them.

"It would be brutal and inhumane in my opinion if we implemented the full cuts without considering temporary revenue enhancements." he said.

Windy Boy said that what people want is to see lawmakers work together, and he will support what is needed.

"We need to put politics aside here because this is serious stuff, life and death for some," Windy Boy said.

 

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