By Rep. Ron Ehli, Hamilton, House Majority Leader
The special session of the Montana Legislature is behind us – yet another thing to be thankful for in this season. Taking center stage was concern for the most vulnerable populations in Montana. What avenues should be taken to address taking care of them? How can we do the most to avoid cuts to their services? The Governor seemed to suggest that the only way to avoid deeper cuts was to raise taxes, and the Republicans were having nothing to do with that.
It’s an unfortunate reality that our state’s budget is such that the Governor has to make cuts, but the $49 million in cuts is a far cry from the $227 million threat prior to the special session. Republicans knew that raising taxes at a time when Montana’s economy is less than great would only exacerbate the proclaimed crisis. Furthermore, with local property taxes coming due, people’s pockets are already feeling lighter. However, it should be noted that further relief for our most vulnerable is an ongoing part of the solution to the special session. In a gesture of cooperation, the genius of an additional $15 million windfall was laid at the Governor’s feet to use at his discretion. The language in the legislation presented to the Governor – while unable to force him to take a specific action – strongly suggests that this additional funding be used to further relieve the Governor’s cuts to services of the most vulnerable. Every service provider and recipient of services should be keeping a watchful eye on the Governor’s priorities as he makes his decisions. Let’s hope that we see this put towards services for those who need them most.
Montana is living through some rough economic times but, as Montanans always do, we will find a way to be stronger than before. There is always a lesson to be learned and it’s important to shine a light in the darkest of times to highlight that which can be improved. In a recent op-ed by a prominent Democrat, it was noted that the chief negotiator for the Democratic side was the Governor’s budget director. The same budget director who was charged with overseeing Montana’s budget as we watched it dwindle from a high of over $550 million to a projected $30 million by 2019, without taking appropriate steps to alleviate the problem. Furthermore, one has to wonder why the Governor’s budget director is permitted to interject himself at such a level in state legislative business. For obvious reasons, it now becomes apparent the legislature and the executive branch should continue as two separate branches of government. If the Democrats are disconcerted, and now questioning the budget director’s ability to perform, what does that say about his qualifications to continue managing Montana’s $10 Billion economy?
The Legislature will continue to do the work of the people and keep a close watch over the purse strings, as we were elected by the people of Montana to do.