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GOP Legislative Leaders Say Talk of A Special Session Premature

Jackie Yamanaka

Republican legislative leaders are skeptical that the Bullock Administration's revenue projections are correct. Because of that they told reporters during a conference call Wednesday it is premature to talk about a special legislative session to address the state budget.

House Appropriations Chair Nancy Ballance points to the state law that authorizes the governor to make cuts in times where there’s a projected revenue shortfall. She and other GOP legislative leaders aren’t convinced that’s the case in Montana.

"We don’t have any new data to tell us that will happen," she says.

They say wait until November when the new revenue estimates come in.

The state’s Budget Director Dan Villa has forecast that revenues will be down $227 million dollars. To prepare for that the Bullock administration has asked agencies to submit options for a 10% budget decrease.

Senate Finance and Claims Chair, Senator Llew Jones says forecasting is a challenge because income taxes can vary. He says the administration’s suggested cuts will hurt Montanans.

"I have no issue with folks coming in and saying, ‘we were unduly targeted.’ I happen to agree with them. I happen to think the targeting of a vulnerable population to get a scream for revenue when there are other options is maybe not the best approach but it is the approach that was taken," says Jones.

He says after the governor selects from his proposed list of cuts, "I’ll comment on it further. Right now my comment is with a list of services that I found somewhat repugnant."

State law gives the governor the authority to cut up to 10% of general fund spending. Since the departments of health, corrections and education receive 85% of the general fund appropriations, they are targeted to absorb the bulk of cuts.

House Speaker Austin Knudsen believes cuts to services for Montana's most vulnerable residents were recommended intentionally to force the legislature's involvement.

"He doesn’t need the Legislature’s to do that for him," says Knudsen. "I have no doubt he would like us to do it for him but the fact is he’s got statutory authority now. It’s been done by lots of other governors. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here."

Knudsen and others the governor is ignoring cuts in the bureaucracy.

As for whether he thinks there needs to be a special session, Knudsen says that’s up to the governor. 

"I’m not interested in having a special session to talk about raising and implementing our cuts. I’m certainly not interested in having that discussion until the governor has used whatever statutory authority he’s got to try to solve this problem," he says.

Republicans hold the majority in both the state House and Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso is surprised the GOP legislative leadership thinks it is premature to consider options to deal with the projected revenue shortfall. He says lawmakers have been discussing this and potential cuts for the past 3 months.

"I also believe, Jackie, that the idea or the notion that we can cut expenses out of existing services to the extent necessary to bring the budget in balance is just wrong," says Sesso.

Sesso suggests lawmakers should at the least entertain the idea of a few temporary tax increases to get the state through the biennium.

"There’s not a Democrat or Republican or anybody who’s in elected office who wants to or is interested in raising taxes," says Sesso. "At the same time we over-estimated the amount of revenue the state would take in FY ‘17 and by extension FY’s ‘18 and ‘19 and something’s got to give."

Sesso says he’s here to represent Montanans not an ideology that says taxes can’t be raised in a crisis. His idea is a mix of cuts and temporary tax increases.

"We have to cut the government. There’s no question about that. And there are ways we can do that that have the least impact on the vulnerable in our state. That has to be done. No question about it," says Sesso. "But we’re not going to get out of this problem by thinking we can do it all on the cut side of the equation."

A spokeswoman for the Bullock Administration says the governor has not set a timetable to announce what it will do with the state’s budget.