Governor must act to spare state from a ruinous shortfall

| June 26, 2020 9:07 AM

Economists are now predicting that the blow to Montana’s economy this year will be worse than anything we’ve experienced since World War II. Nearly 100,000 Montanans have filed unemployment claims since March 1, with Montana suffering significantly more job loss per capita than any state in the Northern Rockies.

While we appreciate some of the actions taken to slow the spread of the virus, the unprecedented job loss we’re experiencing compared to our neighboring states is a direct result of the length of our closure and the essential status arbitrarily assigned to certain industries. These restrictions already will lead to a drastic drop in this year’s tax revenue, blowing a huge fiscal hole in our budget and forcing us down an unsustainable path over this next decade.

The highly reputable Moody’s organization is predicting a 15.4 percent decrease in Montana state revenue for the upcoming fiscal year. Given current figures from the Legislative Fiscal Division, Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposed spending will leave Montanans with a $390 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2021. This trend will only continue in fiscal year 2022 if we do not act now. Projections show revenue shortfalls of an additional $209 million that year. That leaves Montana facing a potential $600 million shortfall over the next two years.

Rather than address a looming fiscal crisis that will affect every single Montanan, Bullock has chosen to do nothing and is falsely painting a rosy picture of the current fiscal landscape. This is similar to the position the governor took in the 2016 campaign cycle. Back then, he indicated that ‘all is well’ when, in fact, it wasn’t. Immediately following his re-election, Bullock made $90 million in cuts to essential health care services during a special legislative session to offset his inaction.

This time, we urge Bullock to do the right thing and address this imminent fiscal storm to ensure our economic fitness extends beyond his last day as governor. He has routinely stated that his decision-making is grounded in ‘science and data, not politics” — but if the past is any indication, his inaction is about advancing his own political aspirations at the expense of Montanans.

This leaves our next governor — Republican or Democrat — to dig Montana out of this fiscal hole, because Bullock does not want to exhibit the leadership needed to make difficult choices and solve this issue today. And with all due respect, Mr. Governor, that is unquestionably political.

The governor cannot allow these ensuing budget challenges to be someone else’s problem just because of the election calendar. Action must be taken immediately. The governor should start by reassessing his spending like our families and small businesses have been required to do throughout this crisis.

To proceed with our original state budget in these extraordinary times as if they are ordinary is downright irresponsible. We call on the governor to change course immediately.

Sales (R-Bozeman) is the president of the Montana Senate. Hertz (R-Polson) is the speaker of the Montana House of Representatives. Thomas (R-Stevensville) is the senate majority leader. Tschida (R-Missoula) is the house majority leader. Blasdel (R-Kalispell) is the senate president pro tempore. Galt (R-Martinsdale) is the house speaker pro tempore.