Be thankful for Montana’s $1 billion surplus

November 24, 2022 4:36 am

Gov. Greg Gianforte addresses fire and land managers on May 2, 2022 (Screenshot of briefing live stream/Arren Kimbel-Sannit)

As we gather with family and friends, trying to avoid a conversation about the election, gas prices, abortion, inflation, or global warming, there may be a bipartisan topic that can be celebrated: the next Montana budget.

Our state, like many, is experiencing a one-time windfall, largely the result of the federal influx of cash from rescue plans and COVID-19 relief. Both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden were supporters of the cash infusion, so it’s not really a partisan issue.

Even though the biennial state budget was just released by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, and it’s a detailed long document that will go through inevitable changes, it’s a solid blueprint for the state.

Before getting clobbered by liberals who believe I may have dipped into the holiday cheer a little early and can’t wait to send me a strongly worded email or drop a few lines of snark in what may be the final days of Twitter, let’s acknowledge that budgets are never rubber-stamped, and will likely undergo many edits.

However, Gianforte’s budget doesn’t cater to some of the far-right members of his party who think the entire surplus should be doled out to residents, preferably the ones already sitting on a pile of cash. Instead, there’s a lot in the budget for different political factions to like (which, conversely means there’s probably plenty in the budget to disdain, depending on your perspective).

The budget surplus, in part, achieves some tax relief on the income tax and property tax side. And with $1 billion in surplus, that may be an expected and fair policy decision.

Secondly, the budget goes to pay off state debt, which also seems like a good, responsible measure. Gianforte is doing what many of would do if we were to inherit a sudden pile of cash. Paying off debt also helps position Montana for more capital investment capacity in the future, as well as making the state’s financial position stronger, making the cost to borrow capital in the future lower.

One of the things that should be welcome for many Montanans and the Legislature should rush to approve is a plan to put a significant chunk of the surplus back into two ailing institutions, the state hospital at Warm Springs and the state prison in Deer Lodge. The proposal includes $300 million for Warm Springs and $200 million for Deer Lodge.

The Gianforte administration inherited a mess at both places. And for many administrations, including the 16 previous years of Democratic governors, these two institutions were neglected dumpster fires that both Steve Bullock and Brian Schweitzer distanced themselves from admirably. However, as conditions deteriorated, the Gianforte administration has been teetering on the brink of implosion at both places.

Regardless of other details in the budget (more on that in a second), this budget has to be seen as a positive because it takes the surplus and invests significant cash, $500 million, into revamping both facilities. Previously, I have suggested that part of the problem may be location – it’s just hard to recruit a mass of professionals to smaller communities like Warm Springs and Deer Lodge.

However, the state desperately needs both institutions, and needs both of them to be successful and well run. So, if that’s the case, an infusion of investment into these two neglected institutions seems not only responsible, but timely. Furthermore, we have the opportunity to invest in them without borrowing money or doing it cheaply. This is exactly how such a one-time surplus should be managed, as an investment.

To be sure, there are many parts of the budget that deserve the scrutiny of hawkeyed legislators. For example, the proposed increase in the amount of funding for the attorney general’s office to defend civil suits (read: the legal troubles the lawmakers create by passing likely illegal bills). Maybe, the GOP-led lawmakers would be better served by crafting laws consistent with (ahem) the law instead of buying more attorneys.

I also hope that lowering taxes and investing in our hobbled institutions isn’t a pretext for cutting more services. In other words, if we keep lowering taxes and shifting money elsewhere, the administration won’t use it as an excuse to cut services and programs in other departments as they claim they’ve run out of money or are living beyond their means. As much as I don’t like paying taxes, I really like the schools my children go to, and I am darn fond of roads, libraries and other services my state tax dollars provide.

Yet I remain thankful that we have an abundance, and we’re investing part of it in systems that truly need the help. I hope that as we work through the devilish details of the budget, we remember that many families continue to struggle to find adequate, affordable housing, that families are being booted from closing nursing homes, and the state has seen a rise in homelessness among elderly and young work services.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.