Top state budget priorities set to become clearer this weekend

Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek)

Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek)

The Senate has its work cut out for it this weekend. The chamber’s Republicans and Democrats will be focused on pushing forward the state’s two-year, $9 billion budget. The main budget bill, HB2, unanimously passed the House last month.

“Almost all the work’s left to do yet,” said Senate Finance Chairman, Senator Rick Ripley (R-Wolf Creek). Senators will be considering amendments to make room in the budget for other major proposals being considered by the wider legislature, such as a fix to the state’s pension debts, state employee pay raises, and funding for construction projects.

“It’s a complicated process to begin with,” Ripley said, “but…we have so many unusual circumstances that normally in a regular legislative session we wouldn’t have to deal with.” He’s referring to the large bills for fixing the pensions and state employee pay raises.

The Governor’s Office wants the Legislature to close on the budget with $300 million left in the bank, otherwise known as the ‘ending fund balance.’ But a balance sheet put out this week from the Legislative Fiscal Division shows the fund almost $95 million in the hole.

Senator Jon Sesso (D-Butte)

Senator Jon Sesso (D-Butte)

“It’s not as bad as the status report really looks,” explains Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, who is also on the Finance Committee. That balance sheet includes the costs of all bills still working their way through the Legislative process at this point. “If we went home today, passed House Bill 2… and didn’t pass any other bills, we’ve got $700 million in the bank.”

The question now is what’s going to make it in out of the major projects yet to pass. Sen. Ripley predicts most big projects will probably make it through, “but chopping away at the edges of them and whittling them down to where we can deal with ’em” rather than killing the ideas. He mentions the House removing large portions of money from Sen. Llew Jones’ (R-Conrad) major education funding legislation.
Senator Sesso looks to a number of major tax cut bills still in the works. “Some of the permanent tax relief is premature,” he said, saying those could put the budget out of structural balance in the long term. He prefers some one-time tax cut options. Democratic Governor Steve Bullock did not comment too much the budget, which he calls ‘a moving target.’ But, he echoed some of Sesso’s thoughts on tax cuts.
“What I said at the start is we’re gonna fund essential services and long-term liabilities before we start new programs or tax cuts,” Bullock said.
Although he does have veto power, it’s not Bullock’s call what to fund. That responsibility falls to the Republican-controlled legislature.

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