HELENA — It’s the role of Montana’s governor to propose a budget every two years, and Gov. Greg Gianforte did just that last month. Now, though, the decisions on how to move forward with the budget are in the hands of the Montana Legislature.
The Legislature is weeks away from the start of its 68th session – and the budget negotiations that will be an integral part of it. Lawmakers will be voting on how to use nearly $2 billion in state surplus funds.
There’s no question the budget is top of mind for many lawmakers this year.
“We’ve never seen a time like this where we have, you know, a surplus of around $2 billion,” said Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, the incoming Senate president. “So it's a very unique situation.”
Republicans hold the governor’s office and a supermajority in the Legislature. Ellsworth said he believes most members of the Senate GOP caucus agree with Gianforte on broad goals, including making investments in state facilities and providing tax relief – but they’ll want to have their own say on how those goals are accomplished.
Gianforte’s budget dedicates $1 billion to tax cuts, including a reduced top income tax rate, tax credits for parents with young children and for adoption, and property tax relief on owners’ primary residences.
“It's the citizens’ money; it's money they've paid into the state,” said Ellsworth. “We want to make sure that the vast majority of that, if not all of it, is given back in one shape or one form or another. The question is in what form, and I think that's what we're going to be addressing during the session.”
Speaking to reporters this week, Democratic leaders said the governor’s budget had some similar themes to their priorities, but the details matter. They said they appreciated some of the provisions included – like the child tax credit, increases to reimbursement rates for care providers and facility investments at the Montana State Hospital and Montana State Prison – but that they didn’t go far enough.
“In critical areas, the governor's budget proposal doesn't match the scale of the multiple crises we are facing, like child care, resources, affordable housing and mental health,” said Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, the incoming Senate minority leader.
Democrats have argued GOP budget plans will benefit wealthy Montanans more than the middle class or working people. They said they want tax relief to be targeted and to include some long-term benefits for families.
“Where we need to hold Republicans accountable for policies that are bad for Montanans, policies that prioritize the wealthiest Montanans and out of state corporations, we will hold Republicans accountable on those things,” said House minority leader Rep. Kim Abbott, D-Helena. “But where we can work with Republicans to deliver for communities, our whole caucus is up for that.”
The work is already beginning. Legislative budget subcommittees were at the State Capitol Thursday holding their first meetings. The 68th session officially gets underway on Jan. 2.