GOP leaders: Bullock has authority to cut budget

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HELENA — Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has all the authority he needs to cut the state budget to address an expected revenue shortfall, Republican legislative leaders said, adding that they aren’t interested in a special session to make cuts or raise taxes.

Revenue updates next month will give officials a clearer picture of the state’s finances, said House Speaker Austin Knudsen of Culbertson.

“If the numbers do come in low, I will say the governor has tools at his disposal to address budget shortfalls,” Knudsen said during a conference call Wednesday.

The governor’s budget director is forecasting revenues will be about $227 million less than the estimated budget that lawmakers agreed upon when setting spending through mid-2019.

State law gives Bullock the authority to cut up to 10 percent of general fund spending. The departments of health, corrections and education receive 85 percent of the general fund appropriations, meaning those agencies would absorb the largest cuts.

The Department of Health and Human Services cuts include optional Medicaid services, such as home health care and case management services for those with disabilities or mental illness and will lead to a cut in some federal matching funds. Dozens of people argued against those cuts during recent legislative committee meetings.

Both parties suggest the other is playing politics with regard to the budget.

Cuts to services for Montana’s most vulnerable residents were recommended intentionally to force the legislature’s involvement, Knudsen charged.

“The governor is focused on working with Republicans and Democrats who are more interested in finding solutions to avoid these cuts than playing politics with people’s lives,” his spokeswoman Ronja Abel said.

Knudsen and Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas of Stevensville argued the governor should consider reductions to the “bureaucracy in Helena.”

Stage agency budgets have been reduced for years via vacancy savings, Abel said.

Llew Jones of Conrad, chairman of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, said he expected the governor would make about $100 million in cuts.

Bullock has not said when he expects to announce his budget cuts.

Lawmakers do agree that they will need a special session to authorize the governor to pay Montana’s bill for this summer’s fires, which Jones said he expects will end up totaling about $70 million.

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