Bullock calls on lawmakers to raise revenues

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Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday gave an update on Montana’s grim budget situation.

Over the past year, emergencies like wildfires have driven up state spending, while low commodity prices have sapped one of the state’s key revenue streams. In August, state budget director Dan Villa recommended that agencies cut nearly $230 million over the next two years to balance the budget. To this end, Bullock requested that most state agencies cut their general fund budgets by up to 10 percent.

In addition to the state cuts, $136 million in matching federal funds could be lost. The Department of Public Health and Human Services, the Commissioner of Higher Education, and the Department of Corrections would take the biggest hits.

Speaking with media outlets around the state via telephone, Bullock acknowledged the pain these cuts would cause while calling on lawmakers to raise revenues.

“It’s certainly our responsibility to make sure our budget is legal, that it’s balanced, and I intend to do so, but these are cuts that significantly impact services Montanans expect all across the state,” he said in the half-hour call.

“In order to make the cuts less impactful to Montanans, there are a number of options we can take, but only if the Legislature comes to the table.”

Bullock and the Republican-controlled Legislature have clashed over state finances in recent months. During Wednesday’s call, he faulted GOP lawmakers for using unrealistic revenue projections in their budget calculations, and for failing to support new or increased taxes.

On their Facebook page Monday, the Montana House Republicans re-iterated their focus on spending, rather than revenue. They quoted an August op-d from Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, who vowed that “when revenue is low we will prioritize essential services, cut back on budget increases and cut government bureaucracy.”

When pressed on impending cuts to the University of Montana and public offices throughout the state, Bullock repeatedly acknowledged the pain those cuts would cause.

In the Flathead Valley, he said he believed that Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) funding would be spared. But as the Daily Inter Lake reported last week, the Flathead Basin Commission tasked with coordinating this effort faces the prospect of not being able to pay its executive director, and that DNRC’s Kalispell Regional Water Office could receive funding “bare bones enough to leave the lights on.”

But “child protective species are important,” Bullock said, “Aquatic invasive species are important, providing things like hospice care...all of these are services that Montanans expect.”

The bicameral Legislative Finance Committee is discussing the cuts Wednesday and Thursday. They could be reversed or eased in a special session of the Legislature. Bullock said he would call one “if I have willing legislators to come to the table and say, ‘folks in their communities expect more than just these cuts.’”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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