HELENA — The Senate Taxation Committee on Friday unanimously approved a three-year revenue estimate that is within 1 percent, or $61.9 million, of what the Bullock administration projected.
The 12-0 vote to approve Senate Joint Resolution 2 came after the panel unanimously passed a motion by Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, to add $31 million over three years to the revenue estimate, as recommended by the Legislative Fiscal Division.
But the panel, on a party-line vote, defeated an attempt by Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, to add an additional $36.9 million — $12.3 million a year — to the revenue estimate. It failed on a 7-5 vote, with Democrats voting for it and Republicans against it.
The revenue estimate that passed projects that the state will collect $6.189 billion in total revenue from various taxes and interest earnings in the three years combined fiscal 2013, which ends June 30, and fiscal 2014 and 2015.
In contrast, Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget office predicted state revenues would be higher, totaling $6.251 billion over the three years.
The revenue estimate is a critical number because it dictates the total amount of money the Legislature can spend, plus keep a surplus. The Montana Constitution says the amount of money appropriated by the Legislature can’t exceed anticipated revenues.
The committee’s unanimous approval of the revenue estimate Friday was in contrast to recent legislative sessions.
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, joined by Democratic lawmakers, argued that estimates by the Legislative Fiscal Division and adopted by the Republican-controlled House Taxation Committee in 2011 greatly underestimated revenues. The Schweitzer administration estimates did prove more accurate two years ago.
It was the first time in years that the Senate initiated the revenue estimates. The 2013 rules this session provided for the revenue estimate to begin in the Senate this session only.
The revenue estimate previously had been in the hands of the House, which bottled up the estimate in 2007, 2009 and 2011 and didn’t send it to the Senate for debate.
Peterson was happy with the Legislative Fiscal Division’s revenue estimate.
“We’ve come amazingly close to the governor’s estimate,” he said. “Never in my career have I seen as much transparency.”
Kaufmann tried to add more corporate license money to the estimate, saying, “We all believe the economy is improving. We ought to be working with a little more of a full pot.”
Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, opposed the motion.
“I would rather see us be more conservative and end up the biennium with more of a surplus than less and not have a special session,” he said.
Sen. Mike Phillips, R-Bozeman, disagreed, saying, “I think it’s critically important that government not end up with too much money in the bank. We should spend money on services.”
Later, Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa, argued for higher revenue numbers.
“We’re pleased to see they made progress toward the executive’s accurate numbers,” Villa said in an interview. “We’ll continue to work with them throughout the process.”
Villa said Montana’s economy continues to grow, with the unemployment rate dropping again Friday to 5.7 percent.
“People in Montana are excited,” he said. “The economy is on the move.”
SJR2 will go on the Senate floor for debate next week. The deadline to send it to the House is Thursday.