The Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) had its final 2019 meeting just prior to Christmas. State revenues and expenses were reviewed ensuring that the budget was balanced with adequate reserves to mitigate most economic downturns. While the U.S. economic record of 126 months without a recession is incredible, smart fiscal management requires that the state keep reserves in a rainy-day fund. This avoids having to slash local education, medical services, and public safety when the next crisis occurs as 91 percent of all state dollars go to local communities
The good news statewide is that personal income growth in Montana, which reflects the Montana overall economy, is very strong. Unfortunately, the growth is largely in urban areas, while rural agricultural regions are struggling with low commodity prices and challenging weather.
Two decades of state government spending growth was reviewed. The growth data does reflect good management, with General Fund growth coming in at Consumer Price Index plus population, much lower than Montana’s overall economic growth.
In fact, over the last four years, State Government full-time equivalents (FTEs) have dropped approximately 400.
I take some pride in Montana’s fiscal stewardship as I have been aggressively involved since 2005. I wish our federal government would show similar restraint.
The LFC is engaged in several interim studies intended to direct legislation next session. Our state library has seen a significant mission evolution over the past decade, and now serves as a warehouse for critical data including property ownership (cadastral), water right ownership, mineral rights, geological survey information, and FWP data.
The current library funding model is aligned with being a book repository, thus the library is struggling to perform well in this critical new data role. Efforts are underway to redefine library funding to support today’s high-tech data needs.
Our rural Special Education COOPs struggle financially. Special Education identification rates have risen to about 12.5 percent in Montana. With the large miles that COOPS travel, and the critical services they provide, the current funding model does not work. There is analysis being completed to ensure that special education resources reach those in need as efficiently as possible.
Another area of focus is incentivizing career and technical education (CTE) at the K-12 and Higher Education level in Montana. Montana’s workforce shortage in these technical fields is severe. Montana graduates about 12,000 students from High School each year, with about 6,000 being well-served by four year schools. The goal here is to provide enhanced alternatives for the other 6,000. What better way to address a Montana workforce shortage than by educating Montana workers?
Finally, I am pushing to have a comprehensive tax equity study done. Property taxes, especially residential property taxes, are increasing out of hand. While most property taxes are spent by local cities, counties, and schools, the legislature can weigh in on the mix of taxes, and possible alternatives.
As a senior fiscal legislator, I focus mostly on “boring” money topics. No matter what challenge government is looking to address, I always begin by recognizing that money is a scarce resource directly mined from taxpayer pockets, thus I am never content to just “throw” more money at a problem.
Thank you for allowing me to be your Representative.
Happy New Year!