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Capitol issues

The sculpture “Montana” atop the state Capitol in Helena towers over the life-size statue of Montana Territorial Gov. Thomas Francis Meagher astride his horse.

After Gov. Steve Bullock signed the major two-year budget bill passed by the 2019 Legislature, the Monday headline said "$10.3B budget."

Where does a state with a population of just more than 1 million get that much money?

The largest chunk will come from the U.S. government — 43 percent, according to the governor's budget office. Federal funding flows into Montana for many public programs. For example, Montana health, human services and transportation agencies get the major portion of their funding from federal dollars.

Most of the legislative debate on the biennial budget centers of the general fund, although that accounts for  just 42 percent of the $10.3 billion.

The balance of the budget is "state special revenue," which is roughly 15%, according to the Legislative Fiscal Division. That includes taxes on such things as gas and diesel, which are dedicated to roads, bridges and other transportation needs.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services accounts for about $4.3 billion of that $10.3 billion in House Bill 2, but only about 26% will come from the general fund, 65% is federal money and 8% is special revenue, including some of the revenue from state taxes on alcohol and tobacco and fees assessed on nursing homes and hospitals to leverage federal Medicaid funds.

Montana's budget doesn't completely satisfy anyone. It spends more than folks whose priority is to shrink government want. It leaves out valuable public services for which there was no funding.

The creation of a compromise biennial budget in just four months is a significant accomplishment. It shows that our state government still works. Montana's 150 lawmakers, a majority of whom are Republicans, and a Democratic governor hammered out a two-year budget between the first week of January and the last week of April.

By contrast, the U.S. Congress hasn't passed a one-year budget on time for more than a decade and the delays have grown longer in the past two years. Woe unto us if Montana's elected leaders ever postpone budget decisions like the feds do.

Montana law puts a strong constraint on our state budget that Congress and the president don't have. Montana code says the state budget cannot spend more money than the state is projected to have on hand. In fact, there is a requirement to budget to keep an amount in the state checking account at the end of the biennium as a cushion against unexpected expenses and revenue shortfalls.

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Passing the biennial budget is the top responsibility of the Legislature. The 21 senators and 25 representatives who voted against this budget probably had many different reasons. The naysayers included Billings Republican Sens. Roger Webb, Cary Smith and Doug Kary, along with Senate President Scott Sales. But Democrat Margie MacDonald also voted no. In the House, the only Billings lawmakers saying no on the final House Bill 2 vote were Republicans Rodney Garcia, Dale Mortensen, Barry Usher, Sue Vinton and Peggy Webb.

On the budget vote, we give kudos to those Democrats and Republicans who were able to find middle ground and vote aye. They got their job done on time for their constituents.

Bullock also deserves credit for working with lawmakers of both parties to get a budget that appears to be workable and based on realistic revenue projections.

Two years ago, the biennial budget was destined for painful after-adjournment cuts to health and human services along with the across-the-board reductions in other departments. Two years ago, the state budget was balanced by shifting millions of dollars in state education costs to local K-12 school district taxpayers. This session provided partial inflationary budget increases for Montana public schools of less than 1% next school year. That's not a lot, but much better than in 2017.

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