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Legislators Back in Helena to Make Tough Budget Decisions

Montana is facing a large budget deficit because of an expensive fire season and revenue that came in far below expectations. (Tracy/Flickr)
Montana is facing a large budget deficit because of an expensive fire season and revenue that came in far below expectations. (Tracy/Flickr)
November 14, 2017

HELENA, Mont. – The special legislative session is convening in full Tuesday to balance the state's budget.

Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed fixing the $227 million shortfall in three equal measures by making some cuts to state services, temporarily increasing some taxes, and making adjustments and transfers within state government.

Eric Feaver, president of MEA MFT, the state's largest public employees' union, says the $76 million cut in state services is a blow, but the governor has no other choice at this point. He adds that Bullock shouldn't be asked to shoulder the burden of cuts alone.

"If we don't have a special session, you can triple the pain and agony that would be visited upon programs and services provided by the state, the university system and the schools," he warns. "And so, consequently we need this session in order to at least ameliorate all the concerns that we have regarding our budget deficit."

The shortfall came after an extremely expensive fire season and a dip in revenue far below expectations. Feaver says part of the problem is an inadequate revenue stream for state government and public services.

Bullock called the session after both parties agreed that cuts alone would have devastated services for the most vulnerable Montanans. Last week, Republicans voted to expand the scope of the session.

The governor's proposal would also mean about 50 state employees lose their jobs. Feaver says that might be less painful than other options, but it's still going to hurt communities across Montana.

"Each job represents a program or a service provided to people and so, obviously, just watching them all go away is not an answer to the question, 'How do we provide public programs and services if we just cut away personnel?'" he explains.

Feaver notes the university system also is at risk. He says two decades ago, the state provided about 70 percent of funding to universities; today, it's about 30 percent. That has meant tuition hikes that could be unsustainable for many families without assistance from the Legislature. Feaver believes the answer is for lawmakers to raise revenue.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT