HELENA — It’s not personal. It’s fiscal.
That’s what Gov. Steve Bullock told legislators and others before — and after — his barrage of vetoes that ended Monday.
Saving money did seem to have been the prime motive behind many of his vetoes.
It couldn’t have been personal because the vetoes angered some of Bullock’s strongest Democratic allies, to say nothing of the Republicans who crossed party lines to support some major administration bills.
In all, Bullock vetoed 71 bills, second only to Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s 78 in 2011.
Forty-one of Bullock’s vetoes were money bills. He slashed $150 million from the budget by deep-sixing these bills.
These vetoes allowed Bullock to achieve one of his main budget goals announced in January, before he took office.
He wanted at least a $300 million general fund surplus — or ending fund balance, in accounting terms — as of mid-2015 when the Legislature adjourned.
The Legislature left a $182 million surplus, $118 million short of Bullock’s target, according to the Legislative Fiscal Division.
Bullock then began vetoing bills to meet his target.
The projected mid-2015 surplus now sits at $310.4 million, according to updated figures from his budget director, Dan Villa. That’s just enough to exceed Bullock’s target, but it would drop if legislators override any of these vetoes.
So what’s so magic about his goal of $300 million?
Bullock said that’s a reserve of about 15 percent of appropriated general-fund spending for fiscal 2015.
Why does he want such a large surplus?
“I can look out my window right now, and I don’t see snowpack,” Bullock said last week. “Be it fires, be it flood, be it an economic downtown, it’s my job to manage this budget when they leave town.”
The Legislature adjourned April 24 and is powerless to do anything about state finances, barring a special session, until January 2015 when the next regular session convenes. Governors will do almost anything within their power to avoid calling special sessions, except for emergencies.
“The legislators, after they leave, aren’t worrying about those numbers like I am,” Bullock said. “Given that we have a Legislature that meets every two years, and we’re one fire season, one economic downturn away from going through that 15 percent, ... I think Montanans understand how they want it managed well and that we need to keep that rainy-day fund.”
Asked how Bullock settled on the $300 million target, Villa said the governor looked at the actual recent ending fund balances and settled on a middle range.
Recent actual surpluses were $451.7 million in fiscal 2012, $341.9 million in 2011, $310.6 million in 2010, $392 million in 2009 and $433.6 million in 2008, Villa said.
Bullock’s $300 million is more than twice Schweitzer’s $125 million surplus goal two years ago, Villa said.
Some legislators expect state revenues to come in much higher, which would produce an even higher surplus.
Senate Joint Resolution 27, introduced in early April by Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, projected $50 million in additional revenue than what legislators predicted in November. The Bullock administration estimated even $50 million more than SJR 27, or $100 million more.
Senate Republican leaders never allowed SJR27 to be debated on the floor, so the revenue estimates were never updated.
Having a hefty surplus not only protects Bullock and the state financially these next two years against fires, floods and other unforeseen events, but it also could set him up well for the 2015 session and beyond.
Bullock got most of his agenda through this session — except for the proposal that was the cornerstone of his 2012 campaign. He proposed giving all Montana homeowners a one-time, $400 property tax rebate at a cost of around $100 million. Republicans killed it in committee.
He borrowed the rebate idea from Schweitzer, who persuaded a special session of the 2007 Legislature to pass an identical rebate for all Montana homeowners. It became a key element of Schweitzer’s successful 2008 re-election campaign.
Ditto with Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, who got the 1995 Legislature to pass a smaller income tax rebate, dubbed “Nobody told us to keep the change.” It passed the year before Racicot’s victorious 1996 re-election campaign.
When Democratic Gov. Thomas L. Judge faced re-election in 1976, he sponsored a ballot measure the same year to give tax rebates to homeowners. Voters re-elected Judge and passed his tax rebate measure on the same day.
If the surplus remains healthy, might Bullock have something similar in mind before his 2016 re-election?
Charles Johnson is chief of the Gazette State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at 800-525-4920 or 406-447-4006.