State more certain of budget surplus of $412 million-plus

Montana is getting a more solid picture of the state’s budget surplus ahead of the 2013 Legislature.

$412 million is predicted to be left in the state’s bank account. That’s the latest estimate from the Legislative Fiscal Division of the state general fund balance at end of this budget cycle, which is at the end of next June.

Fiscal Analyst Terry Johnson told the State Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee it could be even higher.

“We think that this balance could be as high as $470 to $480 million. But I’m not saying that right now because we’re in the process of preparing revenue estimates for this committee in November,” Johnson said.

These predictions change based on many factors from taxes on natural resource development to lottery profits. It’s far from an exact science. The last legislature predicted the budget surplus to be about $120 million less than it’s looking now.

But, all those numbers are firming up as we get closer to the next legislative session. More than $400 million in the black

Since last legislature, Republicans and Democrats have basically been talking about the surplus like this:

Democrats have been saying the state needs to reinvest in state services that received cuts last time.

Republicans want to lower property taxes.

That debate will probably continue this session.

But right now, Revenue and Transportation Committee Chair, Brady Republican Roy Hollandsworth says the state does have a lot of responsibilities it needs to attend to with its extra money first. He points to trying to fix indebted state pension funds, replenishing the now exhausted fire suppression fund and raising state employee base pay, which has been frozen for years now.

“Property relief, if done right, is a very good thing,” he said. “But I have, myself a very hard time telling someone they’re gonna get something back until I see what our liabilities are on spending it.”

Committee Vice-Chair Helena Democratic Senator Christine Kaufmann is a staunch advocate for putting more money back into state services. Yet, she says right now there is agreement that some of the money should go back to property owners.

“Potentially we can arrive there,” she said. “It’s really middle class folks on the ground in this economy and we need to find ways to help them.”

The most important budget meeting for the Revenue and Transportation Committee is still to come. Members will vote in November on adopting a budget estimate to use during the 2013 Legislative Session.


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