Special session is a necessity

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It appears that Montana legislators may at last be close to accepting the necessity of a special session as a means to solving what is a significant budget crisis.

We hope so.

According to published reports earlier this week, the governor’s office has been working with legislative leaders to come up with a deal that would plug the $227 million hole in the budget.

Much of the budget crisis facing the state is the outcome of a worse-than-usual fire season. The state’s cost of fighting fires has topped out (we hope) at around $75 million. Some Republicans point at the governor for raiding the Wildfire Suppression Fund, but there is enough blame to go around.

The question is how do we solve the problem now.

It certainly won’t be easy to get a majority of legislators to agree with the proposed temporary tax increases that have been suggested, nor will it be easy for other legislators to swallow the budget cuts that will hit agencies that provide crucial assistance to Montanans.

But nobody ever said it would be easy to balance a budget, yet that is the constitutional responsibility of the governor and Legislature. Lawmakers need to step up and not hide behind the provision that allows Gov. Bullock to reduce agency spending by up to 10 percent. Blaming Bullock may be good politics for Republicans, but it’s not good policy for Montanans. Nor is penciling in cutbacks for vital services in order to scare voters, such as some agencies seem to be doing.

Elsewhere in this section, Sen. Pat Connell proposes a one-time withdrawal of $160 million from the state’s coal-tax trust fund in order to fund vital services, pay the firefighting bill and create a cushion for firefighting expenses next year.

Frankly, Connell’s proposal may go nowhere — as legislators insist that the coal trust money should only be used for a rainy day. But we agree with Connell that a fiery year such as we just endured is as much of an emergency as we ever hope to encounter.

Rain or shine, diverting money from the trust to pay for protecting our forests would be a legitimate use of funds created by one of the state’s natural treasures to pay the costs for preserving another.

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