One legislator’s budget solution

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OK, I admit it. I am not one of those gnomes that occupy the Appropriations, Finance & Claims or Taxation Committees in the Legislature. I am a policy guy, who has always sought solutions for problems facing Montana. We have all been listening to the verbal bricks being tossed back and forth from the administration over the condition of Montana’s budget. I get it. It IS pretty doggone dire; so maybe now, it is time to think outside the accounting boxes of both the governor and Legislature. A policy guy does that.

After a rash of wildfire costs a few years ago, the creation of a perpetual Wildfire Suppression Fund (HB354) in the 2013 session was my idea so as not to stick Montanans with a surprise fire cost after every summer. It worked; however, in a foolish gamble to backfill an already weak budget, the fund was raided by the governor, with the acceptance of the Legislature for the current budget, and now, after a horrible fire year, the fund is empty.

So now, in response to the governor’s directive to comply with a constitutional mandate for a “balanced budget,” the various state agencies have proposed absolutely the WORST choices to trim their costs as a gambit to scare the pants off honest folks — and it has worked. Twenty percent of my neighbors in SD43 directly rely on the health and welfare programs of Montana, yet virtually nobody wants their taxes to increase to cover this crisis.

In the past, these programs have been financed on the backs of heavy industry: livestock, grain, oil, gas, coal, forest products and heavy metals mining, but now, through both benign neglect by the last couple of administrations, plus a complete double market whammy against these industries, Montana has an inadequate tax revenue from those industries to cover its social programs.

My solution: (1) recognize this problem in detail next session between revenue forecasts and budgetary wrangling, but for now, authorize a one-time withdrawal of $160 million from the Coal Trust to finance the back-filling of the governor’s spent emergency funds, paying the 2017 balance of the wildfire suppression, plus leaving a balance of $30 million for the 2018 wildfire suppression season, and (2) use the balance to backfill the necessary health and welfare programs that have been targeted by this administration to be cut.

What does my solution accomplish? First, it will still require the administration to apply surgical skill in trimming the rest of the deficit. (Why in heck does each department need a “public information officer” when each also has a deputy director?) Second, it will protect the most vulnerable of our neighbors and friends, and, third, it will backstop the wildfire risk of next year, ALL WITHOUT RAISING TAXES!

Yes, the Coal Trust has been a sacrosanct fund, requiring a 75 percent legislative majority to approve my proposed withdrawal. Yes, it has been argued that it was for Montana’s future, and basically a “rainy day” fund. Well, folks, it’s a downpour right now! This, then, is my solution.

Pat Connell, a Hamilton Republican, represents Senate District 43.

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