Upon recognizing the harsh reality of Montana’s revenue shortfall, most concerned individuals eventually make it to the Finance Chair’s office (mine). What I am most likely to hear is, “I support needed cuts and a frugal state budget. I am opposed to any tax increase. However, my particular favorite must not be cut as it is too critical for Montana.”
I just listened to a very respectful group of six college students advocate such. They shared how the high cost of tuition led to higher debt loads thus making school more difficult for most, potentially impossible for some. With three college graduate sons and a soon to be 17-year-old daughter, it was easy for me to empathize. Education is my soft spot.
This was followed shortly by senior citizen advocates that referenced Health and Human Services cuts that potentially impacted long-term care as akin to “Geriatric Genocide.” Then came the group opposed to reducing law enforcement or prison holds, saying such ill thought cuts would lead to an explosion in child abuse and neglect cases across Montana.
Everybody had emotionally compelling stories of how cuts, while needed and fine if applied elsewhere, would be devastating to their favorite.
Montana invests 80 percent of its budget in three areas: Education (K-12 plus College), Health and Human Services, and Corrections. Income tax is the primary revenue source obligated to meet the state’s education, medication, and incarceration responsibilities. I can say with confidence is that there are few who support higher income taxes.
The cut reality is simple. It is impossible to address budget shortfall of today’s magnitude through impacting only one segment of government, thus all segments must participate. The pain of cutting is worsened in that the bureaucracy of each area is skilled at identifying the uncuttable, complete with sound bites designed to make news.
The legislature is taking “canes and seeing eye dogs away from blind children” and “overflowing prisons through refusing to provide affordable education for our youth.” Those are actual quotes. More money tends to be government’s preferred solution.
For example, when the Appropriation Chair and I asked agencies to self-identify potential dollars that could be recaptured, the $523 million Department of Health and Human Services identified exactly zero dollars. The $14 million legislative branch, on the other hand, offered $1.2 million.
In truth, most areas of government can identify savings, but simply choose not to. Thus, an often overlooked upside that emerges from responsibly addressing a budget shortfall is that government subsequently emerges leaner, more efficient, and often more effective. That is the goal that the House Appropriations Chair and I, plus the entire Finance team, are focused upon. A key component of that goal is to avert or reduce the severity of future fiscal crises through the creation of a “Budget Stabilization Plan” capable of reacting quickly when revenues fall.
Ultimately the legislature is responsible for defining a balance where key government services are provided effectively while limiting government mission creep, fraud, waste and abuse. Example balances: Montana does not need all new snowplows, but if does need operational ones with good tires. Montana needs safe bridges, but money collected to fix bridges does not belong fixing roofs.
My quote for this week is from Winston Churchill, “He who fails to plan is planning to fail.”
I am confident the 65th legislature will meet its Constitutional obligation to balance the budget. Moreover, I intend to work hard to not only address the current challenge, but to create a better plan forward, where the state will respond more quickly to revenue shortfalls irrespective of the CEO currently elected to the political helm.
Thank you for allowing me to be your Senator.