EDITORIAL: Legislature’s focus must be budget

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Tomorrow, the 65th Montana Legislature will convene in Helena. And while legislators have a full collective plate already, balancing the next two-year state budget will be the centerpiece for much of the 90-day session.

The most recent revenue projections from the Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget office provided a dash of optimism after the sobering drop in tax collections reported earlier in 2016. But lawmakers from both parties agree that the state government is likely headed for some belt-tightening over the next two years.

Local GOP legislators rightly note that Montana’s balance sheet should reflect the lower-than-expected revenue flowing into state coffers this year. But the need for careful budgeting doesn’t abdicate the state from its role to help communities in the Treasure State struggling to address a range of issues — from tackling rising crime and drug addiction to safeguarding our world-renowned waters from the further spread of invasive species.

And after a half-decade of failed efforts to pass a spending package that addresses the crumbling infrastructure of communities across Montana, we hope 2017 will be the year that the two parties finally hammer out a thoughtful, bipartisan compromise.

The Montana Infrastructure Coalition seems to have laid out a promising starting point. The group’s recommendation for a narrower, GOP-favored definition of “infrastructure” is paired with the assertion that some level of bonding will be necessary to balance a cash-strapped state budget while funding those projects. Other pieces of the coalition’s ambitious proposal similarly pull from both parties.

Those proposals on infrastructure funding and other important issues will inevitably emerge from the session’s political wrangling and policy debates with substantial alterations.

But like it or not, the state’s voters again chose a divided government on Nov. 8. And they expect both sides to approach the next four months with open minds and a willingness to work together toward solutions that will benefit all Montanans.

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