Budget takes center stage in Legislature’s first week

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Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, center, and other Democratic legislators unveiled their plan of action at a press conference in the Capitol on Tuesday.

HELENA — Montana’s 2017 Legislature has begun to tackle a wide swath of issues, from public safety to infrastructure, from education to agriculture. But as the first of many bills were read in committee rooms around the Capitol last week, it became clear that everything this time around would focus on the budget.

During a Republican caucus Tuesday, House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, told fellow party members that the challenges the entire Legislature faces in the coming months would be daunting.

“There’s going to be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, but we know what needs to be done,” Knudsen said.

House Majority Leader Ron Ehli, R-Hamilton, said legislators considering Gov. Steve Bullock’s infrastructure bill were “walking into a session with very, very tight budget constraints.”

Bullock has proposed increases in infrastructure spending, including construction and repair of roads and bridges, and projects like the renovation of MSU’s Romney Hall and the construction of an additional veterans shelter. These would be funded through sources that include bonding, where the state incurs debt.

Ehli referred to this as an “all or nothing” plan.

“The way they’ve promoted infrastructure in the last two sessions have failed,” Ehli said. The 2015 Legislature was unable to pass an infrastructure plan by the end of that session. This session, infrastructure funding will be even harder to come by, with declining tax revenues leading to a budget shortfall projected to be around $90 million.

Ehli said he recognizes the need for infrastructure investment, but insisted that it focus on projects like roads and sewers over construction. He said once a clearer definition of “infrastructure” is brought to the table, Republicans will have a better idea of whether they will support measures that require bonding.

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Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said bonding is essential to successfully funding Montana’s infrastructure, given the budget shortfall.

“To me we are doing a disservice to future generations by not making these strategic investments,” Sesso said.

To make any kind of investment, though, other areas of the budget will have to take cuts. The lack of money may force most committees to prioritize and compromise on their goals.

Infrastructure isn’t the only squeeze

Bullock’s proposed budget would slash about $74 million from various agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Montana Highway Patrol. Republicans have pushed for additional cuts, totaling closer to $121 million.

“We’re still kind of working on putting the pieces together,” said Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, chairman of the House Education Committee. He said his committee is already looking for  funding in key areas.

One such area is the base level spending for Montana’s K-12 schools, which Berglee hopes to increase. Schools receive a base level of funding for the year, and must come up with the rest of their money through mill levies and other measures.

“From the looks of it we’re going to be able to fund the base aid increase at the level (the Office of Public Instruction is) asking for,” Berglee said.

Though Republicans have argued for fewer cuts to the Office of Public Instruction than Bullock proposed, a 3.5 percent decrease in funding is nevertheless on the table.

“A lot of the more specific special education (programs have) not received increases in the past,” Berglee said. “Some of those programs are probably going to end up waiting longer to get an increase in funding, so we’re trying to focus on getting people the money they need to operate and set a good budget.”

In the face of so little funding, Berglee said, the name of the game quickly becomes compromise. Agencies with less will often ask others with more flexibility to hold off hiring or creatively use resources one session, hoping the favor will be returned during a better financial year.

Alternative funding ideas

Some programs are finding different funding solutions to help expansion.

The House Agriculture Committee heard House Bill 126 on Thursday. If passed, HB 126 would raise the fee to register a pesticide with the Department of Agriculture to an amount between $130 and $145. Under the current provisions, it costs $90.

Fees for farm pesticide applicators would also be raised from $35 to $45, the money from which would be used to fund the registration program and certification and training programs for applicators. Much of the money would go to pesticide recycling programs and the statewide weed coordinator.

“For a professional fee, those are minimal,” said Amy Adler, weed district coordinator for Rosebud County.

Confronting the budget constraints, other committees may see proposals for similar solutions to keep programs afloat.

“The biggest concerns of course are not going to be involved with the Senate or House agriculture committees,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Brian Hoven, R-Great Falls. “They have to do with money.”

Click here to read a related story on the Legislature’s first week.

Michael Siebert is a reporter with the UM Community News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism and the Montana Newspaper Association.

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