Gazette opinion: Budget crunch time calls for compromise

2013-04-16T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Budget crunch time calls for compromise The Billings Gazette
April 16, 2013 12:00 am

Ten workdays remain for the Montana Legislature to complete the state’s two-year budget as well as major education, health care, public pension, infrastructure and tax reform bills.

The first 80 days have been marked instances of bipartisan agreement as well as bitter partisan struggles. In the Senate, which convened with a division in the majority Republican caucus, moderate GOP senators have joined Democrats to send key education and health care bills to the House. But the House GOP majority has not approved those Senate proposals.

On Saturday, a moderate Senate coalition approved a state budget in House Bill 2, despite opposition from Senate leadership. Today, the Senate version of HB2 is up for a final vote. Then House and Senate will have to reconcile their differences in a conference committee appointed by the leadership of each chamber. It will be an interesting conference where all major issues could be on the table.

Gov. Steve Bullock can’t take official action on the budget till House and Senate pass it. But his input over the next 10 days will be crucial. Legislative leaders need to know what is acceptable to the governor and what is not. Montanans don’t want a repeat of the 2007 debacle where Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed the budget and called the Legislature back into a May special session.

Senate squabbles

It’s time for reasonable compromise. A week ago, that seemed like an elusive goal. A regrettable, raucous display by Senate Democrats, violated the expected decorum of that chamber on April 5. The minority Democrats were objecting to the GOP fast-tracking referenda bills aimed at reducing the time allowed for voter registration and eliminating third parties from the general election ballot.

Senate President Jeff Essmann of Billings and Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte apparently put that acrimony aside with a joint letter last week pledging to maintain decorum on the floor.

Sesso said this weekend that all major priorities are “still alive and kicking.” He was optimistic about chances for progress.

Tax reduction is a priority for Essmann, who told The Gazette State Bureau: “I’m hopeful we can reach agreement with the House and governor’s office for further reductions in business equipment taxes.”

In January, Bullock said he wanted a budget that is structurally balanced and would leave $300 million in the state’s checking account at the end of the biennium in July 2015. As of last week, the Legislative Fiscal Division calculated that the Legislature’s budget proposal would spend $94.6 million more than it takes in and would leave a balance of only $151 million in July 2015.

Balance the budget

The Legislature has to balance the budget before tax cuts can be considered, Bullock told The Gazette State Bureau.

Despite widespread agreement that the tone of the 2013 Legislature is much less contentious than recent sessions, big differences remain to be resolved by the end of next week.

As lawmakers and the governor work through this crunch time, we call on them to remember what Bullock said in his State of the State address in January and repeated after the April 5 Senate dust-up: “act in a manner that we’re not ashamed to have our kids watching, because they are.”

All Montanans should be watching the important decisions made over the next two weeks.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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