State budget is front and center

Sate Rep. Eric
Monday, March 11, 2019

The House appropriations crew came back from transmittal break this last week to hear House Bill 2, the state budget. We are past the halfway point and ready to finish up the people’s work and head home in April.

The state budget will be front and center the next couple weeks, so I thought I’d make a few points.

Montana has a balanced budget amendment in our state constitution. That means we cannot spend more than we take in. Republicans are committed to balance the state budget without ANY of the Governor’s proposed tax increases that total in the neighborhood of $100 million. The federal government has no such requirement, which is why a lack of fiscal discipline (in both parties) has resulted is steadily increasing budget deficits and a national debt north of $20 trillion.

In Montana, money is a scarce resource and to balance the budget, the legislature and the executive much agree to make difficult choices.

I love the story about a colleague of mine who was approached in the hallway by some university students. They said they were appreciative of the tuition freeze, but requested the state fund an additional $5 million in scholarships. He replied “Fine, which nursing homes would you like to close?” They were bewildered by the question, not understanding what one had to do with another. The answer is that a choice to spend money in one section results in a choice not to spend in another.

The appropriations committee is taking a hard look this session at the number of state employees. Considering advancements in technology, one would expect to achieve some efficiencies, at least in the administrative positions. With roughly 12,000 state employees, personnel expenses are a huge cost driver in the budget. In my section, Health and Human Services for example, there are 3,000 employees. When we looked at the budget this year, we found out that 400 of them were currently vacant,100 of which have been vacant for over a year! Now in my business, one person not showing up for work puts a big strain on the rest of the crew. If we have a vacancy, we hustle to fill it. So the question we asked of the agencies was, if this position has been vacant for a year or more, do we really need it? If you can’t fill positions, shouldn’t we discuss that issue instead of arguing about how many vacant positions the legislature should fund?

Passing the state budget is a balancing act where we strive to service the most vulnerable among us, fund our schools, and keep dangerous criminals off the streets, all while not overly punishing the tax-payer. To do that requires constantly looking to find efficiencies, rooting out waste and fraud, and striving to keep government focused on doing only what it should do.

In the end, the budget will be a compromise, because we have a Republican majority legislature and a Democrat governor. Like most compromises, nobody will be entirely happy with it. But for all its flaws, our citizen legislature (as opposed to professional politicians), combined with the wisdom of our fore-bearers who had the vision to put a balanced budget in our Constitution, usually results in a fairly decent product. I’m confident it will do so again. Thanks for allowing me to represent southeastern Montana, and feel free to contact me anytime.

( Eric Moore of Miles City represents Montana House District 37.)