Governor Brian Schweitzer has released the final state budget of his tenure. He says the budget provides a roadmap for the 2013 legislature and Governor-Elect Steve Bullock as they discuss Montana’s finances in the coming months.
Schweitzer’s recommendations are in no way binding to either Bullock or the Legislature, but the Schweitzer budget will likely be used as the starting point. The popular, two-term Governor used the presentation of the final budget to tout what he sees as the successes of his Administration. Schweitzer also put forth a list of priorities he hopes the state keeps pushing forward when he leaves office.
Governor Schweitzer begins his last budget press conference after just returning from a week and a half-long trip to the Caribbean.
“I’m back from having my toes in the sand and a beer in my hand,” Schweitzer said.
In just a few weeks he’ll be handing over the reigns of Montana’s government to fellow Democrat Steve Bullock.
“Our last, most important duty is to pass a budget along to the next administration,” he said. A budget that continues the Schweitzer legacy of large, record-setting surpluses, which the Governor points out with characteristic tongue-in-cheek humility.
“Our cash in the bank today is actually $469,758,700 dollars and 47 cents…so we’re about ten times more than they’d had in history, let’s move along,” he said.
Schweitzer’s last budget focuses on the three biggest pieces of that budget, which he labels as education, medication and incarceration. Those three combine to make almost 88 percent of the budget.
“And it really matters to the people of Montana that we get these things right,” he said.
For education, which makes up half of a budget, he wants to invest $67 million into K-12 education. Schweitzer wants to freeze college tuition for the next two years by injecting $34 million dollars in the Montana University System. He says decisions like that in the past have led to recent reports showing Montana increasing its rate of those with a college degree at the fastest rate in the nation.
For the medication component Schweitzer seemed to reverse an earlier position on the state paying for the Medicaid expansion included in the Affordable Care Act. In the past, Schweitzer has expressed reservations about how much this could cost in the long term. But now, he says the state should spend $5 million dollars to get additional funding from the federal government to pay for Medicaid expansion.
“To get 80 thousand Montanans covered with health care, 80 thousand,” he said.
And for incarceration, Schweitzer wants to add $30 million dollars to the department of corrections. Schweitzer says most of the people in prison have drug or alcohol problems, he wants to increase funding for rehabilitation programs.
“To get people ready to go back into society,” he said.
Outside of those big three, Schweitzer touted his plan to fix the state’s ailing employee pension systems. The current funding model has those systems over $3 billion dollars in debt over the next 30 years. Schweitzer’s plan asks for higher contributions from both state employees and their employers as well as adding money from natural resource development.
He wants to boost state employee pay 5 percent each of the two years. Schweitzer advocates an $88 million dollar bonding bill for construction projects for the Montana Historical Society and at state Colleges and universities. He says this bill could create over 21 hundred jobs.
“We’re proposing this bonding bill to the next legislature and shame on them if they don’t pass it,” he said.
But the next legislature will be controlled by Republicans and they will be coming with their own priorities for the budget, including the nearly $470 million dollar surplus.
A spokesman for Governor-Elect Steve Bullock says they have just received Schweitzer’s budget and will be reviewing it before making their modifications.