As we gather with family and friends and try to avoid a conversation about elections, gas prices, abortion, inflation or global warming, perhaps there’s one bipartisan issue to celebrate, Montana’s next budget.
Our state, like many others, is experiencing a one-time windfall, largely due to federal cash inflows from bailout plans and COVID relief. Both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden were proponents of the cash injection, so it’s not really a partisan issue.
Although the biennial state budget has just been released by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and is a detailed lengthy document that will undergo inevitable changes, it is a solid blueprint for the state.
Before I get swamped by liberals who think I may have gotten into the Christmas spirit a bit early and can’t wait to send me a sharply worded email or drop a few snarky lines from Twitter over the last few days If you give us credit for these budgets, they will never be stamped and are likely to undergo many edits.
However, Gianforte’s budget does not suit some of his party’s far-right members, who believe that the entire surplus should be distributed to residents, preferably those already sitting on a pile of cash. Instead, there’s a lot to like in the budget for various political factions (which, in turn, means there’s likely a lot to despise in the budget, depending on your perspective).
The budget surplus results in part in tax relief on the income tax and wealth tax side. And with a $1 billion surplus, that may be an expected and fair political decision.
Secondly, the budget serves to pay off the national debt, which also seems to be a good and responsible measure. Gianforte is doing what many would do if we suddenly inherited a pile of money. Debt repayment also helps position Montana for more capital investment capacity in the future and strengthen the state’s fiscal position, thereby lowering future capital raising costs.
One of the things that many Montanans should welcome and that legislators should approve quickly is a plan to put a significant portion of the surplus back into two ailing facilities, the Warm Springs State Hospital and the Deer Lodge State Penitentiary. The proposal calls for $300 million for Warm Springs and $200 million for Deer Lodge.
The Gianforte administration inherited a mess in both places. And for many governments, including the 16 former Democratic governors, both of those institutions were neglected dumpster fires from which both Steve Bullock and Brian Schweitzer distanced themselves admirably. However, as conditions worsened, the Gianforte government was on the brink of implosion in both places.
Regardless of other details in the budget (more on that in a moment), this budget must be viewed as a positive as it takes the surplus and invests significant cash, $500 million, in modernizing both facilities. Earlier I suggested that part of the problem might be location – it’s just difficult to recruit a mass of professionals for smaller communities like Warm Springs and Deer Lodge.
However, the state badly needs both institutions and needs both to be successful and well run. So if that’s the case, investing in these two neglected institutions seems not only responsible, but timely. In addition, we have the opportunity to invest in them without borrowing money or doing it cheaply. This is exactly how such a one-time surplus should be managed as an investment.
Certainly there are many parts of the budget that deserve the scrutiny of sharp-eyed legislators. For example, the proposed increase in funding for the Attorney General’s office to defend against civil claims (read: the legal problems caused by lawmakers by passing likely illegal bills). Perhaps the GOP-led lawmakers would be better served by drafting laws consistent with (ahem) the law rather than buying more lawyers.
I also hope that tax cuts and investments in our shackled institutions are not an excuse to cut more services. In other words, if we continue to cut taxes and reallocate money elsewhere, the administration will not use this as an excuse to cut services and programs in other departments because they claim they are running out of money or living beyond their means. As much as I don’t like paying taxes, I really like the schools my children go to, and I really like roads, libraries, and other services that my state tax dollars provide.
Still, I remain grateful that we have an abundance and that we’re investing some of it in systems that really need help. I hope that as we work through the fiendish details of the budget, we’ll remember that many families continue to struggle to find decent, affordable housing, that families are being barred from nursing home closures, and that the state is seeing a rise in homelessness among the elderly People Registered and Youth Work Services.