HELENA — Republican legislators are using different comparisons to fight over how much the 2013 Legislature increased state spending over the next two years.
Two bitterly divided Republican legislators began just doing just that Tuesday after new numbers were released at an interim legislative committee meeting. The different levels of spending increases figure to be a major issue in some Republican legislative primaries this year.
Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, a leader of the self-described “responsible Republicans,” or moderates, said he prefers the newly released calculations showing that the Legislature approved a 4.3 percent increase in “total appropriations” from 2013 biennium to the 2015 two-year budget period.
Moderate Republicans worked with the Democratic minorities in the Senate and House to pass the budget over the opposition of more conservative Republicans.
But Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, a leader of the conservative Republicans, was highly critical of the double-digit percentage increase in state “general fund appropriations” passed by the Legislature from the 2013 biennium to the 2015 biennium.
The general fund increase from biennium to biennium was originally reported to be 14.2 percent by the Legislative Fiscal Division in June 2013, but reduced to 13 percent, or 13.6 percent, depending on the assumptions, according to a recent report by Legislative Fiscal Division.
“Total appropriations” consist of the state general fund, state special funds, federal funds, long-range building and proprietary appropriations. These totaled $10.92 billion in the 2015 biennium, compared with $10.467 billion the previous two years, the Legislative Fiscal Division said.
The “general fund appropriations” are largely money raised by state taxes such as individual and corporate income taxes, property taxes, vehicle taxes, natural resource taxes and gambling taxes. General fund spending rose to $4.06 billion for the 2015 biennium, up from $3.592 billion over the previous two years, the Legislative Fiscal Division report said.
Tutvedt, chairman of the Economic Affairs Interim Committee, said he requested the updated report from Legislative Fiscal Analyst Amy Carlson “to compare apples to apples.”
“There was a lot of talk about how much government grew from biennium to biennium, a lot of miscommunication in the press,” Tutvedt said at the meeting. “It takes (away) a lot of the legend that was out there, and it shows we were very judicious with the people’s money.”
Essmann, who is not on the committee, later criticized the 2013 Legislature’s increase in general-fund spending, regardless of whether the number is 13 percent, 13.6 percent or 14.2 percent.
“The big news is it’s one of the highest increases in general fund of anywhere in the nation,” Essmann said in a later telephone interview, citing a 2013 analysis by the National Association of State Budget Officers.
He said North Dakota registered a higher general fund spending growth than Montana, but for a reason: North Dakota has great increase in oil revenues and a number of infrastructure needs that accompany the oil boom and new jobs.
“I think what’s going on is you’ve got a small number of legislators who voted for a large budget increase who are worried about primaries from more conservative candidates, and they’re trying to change the story,” Essmann said.