During the last month we have seen headlines like “Montana, broke and burning” and “Governor: budget cuts will ‘hurt’ Montana residents.”
Montana is not broke, although we are having some financial challenges, and thankfully the fires are contained and no longer filling our skies with smoke. But rather than address the root cause of Montana’s budget challenges, Gov. Steve Bullock and his surrogates are using headline scare tactics to attempt to drum up support for tax increases. The truth is, since 2012, general fund revenue is up 14 percent, but at the same time general fund spending is up 32 percent. Our state government is simply spending too much money.
Even though revenue growth has recently slowed in Montana, it has exceeded both inflation and population growth combined. Our structural imbalance is the result of a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Rather than directing cuts at administration and bureaucracy in Helena, Gov. Bullock and his staff have aimed their cuts at service providers on the ground in order to build up political momentum to promote tax increases. Most Montana families have not seen their income grow by 14 percent since 2012. Now is not the time to take more of their money through tax increases.
We’ve been near full employment in Montana for the last several years, yet our revenue growth has not kept up with our spending. What we are facing is a result of Montana’s long-term trend of trading high-paying natural resource jobs for lower-paying service and tourism jobs. Dan Villa, Bullock’s Budget Director, pointed this out during a recent meeting of the Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee. Villa stated, “Timber mills paid property taxes. Hospitals do not. That is a fundamental shift in what our economy looks like.” If the goal is to raise revenue, the governor, his staff and Democrats in the Legislature should work with Republicans to help grow our tax base through economic development of natural resources and other high-paying industries rather than raising taxes on existing taxpayers.
Governor, it is time to get realistic on your budgets cuts. It’s time to roll back some of the state’s spending growth by reducing state government bloat and leaving those directly providing services to the neediest alone. We can live on the budget we had only a few years ago without hurting Montana’s most vulnerable. We will not be supporting tax increases, even if the governor and Democrats in the Legislature try to sugarcoat them by calling them “revenue enhancements.” It is time to get real and cut the bureaucracy in Helena.