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Republican Lawmakers, State Officials At Odds Over State Finances

Montana Legislators meeting during a live-web conferenece to discuss state finances on May 20, 2020
Montana Public Affairs Network
Montana lawmakers discussed how to address the novel coronavirus's impacts on state finances on a virtual meeting May 20, 2020.

Montana legislators today considered sending several letters calling for additional financial action from the governor and Congress to address the novel coronavirus. Republican lawmakers and state officials remain at odds over how to deal with the virus’s potential impact on state revenues.

State Republican Rep. Becky Beard made a motion for the Interim Revenue Committee May 20 to send a letter to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Budget Director Tom Livers. It would have requested that the governor’s office, budget director and committee work closely together on solutions to counteract expected drops in revenue collections due to the coronavirus.

“Because we know this is an intense fiscal emergency we’re facing with our revenue shortfalls. And we have to keep in mind that we’re going to have to pay the piper down the road,” said Beard.

The committee rejected the proposal on a tied party line vote. Six Republicans were for the proposal, while six Democrats voted against. A second letter calling for Bullock to consider immediately cutting state spending wasn’t voted on.

Top state Republican lawmakers sent a different letter to Bullock on Tuesday that also called for spending cuts. Speaker of the House Greg Hertz joined Wednesday’s meeting during the public comment period to reiterate his support for a five percent cut. He suggested avoiding layoffs, but said that could involve cutting state employee hours by five or 10 percent.

Budget Director Livers maintained robust cash reserves put the state government in a strong position to preserve essential services. He said the Moody’s Corporation financial analysis underpinning the letter Hertz signed ignores differences between Montana’s relatively positive coronavirus context, compared to the country at large. But, Livers acknowledged that income tax withholding may drop 11 percent over the next fiscal year.

Interim Revenue Committee Vice Chair Dick Barrett, a Democrat, said cutting state spending now will only exacerbate the economic downturn.

“We have the reserves, the purpose of the reserves in the first place is precisely this to be able to maintain spending during a downturn,” said Barrett.

Barrett introduced a third letter calling on Montana’s congressional delegation to approve federal financial support for the state and local governments. It too failed on a tied party line vote.