As the clock ticks on a deadline to address Montana’s $227 million budget hole, neither Gov. Steve Bullock nor state legislators have advanced a detailed plan on how to address it.
Bullock, a Democrat, told MTN News through a spokeswoman Tuesday that negotiations on a possible package of spending cuts, tax increases and budget transfers remain “ongoing and fluid.”
But several leading Republican lawmakers also said that it’s time for the governor to outline what he wants to do, regarding spending cuts and possible other steps to balance the budget.
“At some point, you have to say I will cut `X’ … these are my cuts, and beyond that, I will ask the Legislature to participate, and why,” said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, and chair of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee. “It’s on him.
“He has to put a proposal out there and try to convince the public and members of the Legislature that his proposal is better than doing nothing.”
Almost two months ago, the Bullock administration outlined more than $200 million in spending cuts that he can make on his own – but the governor said those cuts go too deep, and that lawmakers should meet in special session to take action to mitigate the cuts.
Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney have been meeting with civic groups and the media across the state, to drum up support for other alternatives such as selected tax increases or budget transfers.
Yet Bullock has yet to lay out publicly a specific plan of what he wants to do.
The Bullock administration also has said a special session of the Legislature needs to meet before Nov. 27, when the state must make a scheduled $120 million payment to public schools.
Without action by the Legislature to generate some additional revenue, it’s unlikely the state will have enough money to make that payment, the administration has said.
Jones and House Minority Leader Jenny Eck, D-Helena, told MTN News this week that they believe that deadline is real.
“At some point a person is going to have to pull the trigger,” Jones said. “I do believe it will have to happen relatively soon, if it’s going to happen this year.”
The governor has the power to call the Legislature into special session and outline the range of issues that can be considered. However, once that happens, a majority of lawmakers also has the power to expand the scope of the session.
Republicans control majorities in both houses of the Legislature. While top GOP leaders have said they’re not supportive of tax increases, the Bullock administration has been negotiating with moderate Republicans to see if enough votes can be found, along with Democrats, to pass some sort of tax increase.
Eck, who’s been involved in the negotiations, wouldn’t say Tuesday what sort of tax increases might be able to pass the Legislature.
“At this point, everything is still on the table,” she told MTN News. “The goal right now is to put ideas out there, to hear ideas from the other side, to try to find middle ground … We have not arrived on an agreement or a deal.”
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said this week it’s important to include all Republicans in the discussion, in some way, because they won’t support something that’s crafted without their knowledge or input.
“I know my caucus well enough to know that … if you put a solution out there that they have not been a part of creating, or able to weigh in on, as defined as a solution, it’s rejected,” she told MTN News.
Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, however, said he’s frustrated by the governor’s refusal so far to outline a specific plan.
“We need to see a very specific set of reductions and spending,” he told MTN News. “We then need time to react to that, and put together our plans, depending on whatever he has done. And it takes time to do that.”