Taxes again dominate budget talks at 2019 Montana Legislature

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, is the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. (Shaylee Ragar/UM Legislative News Service)

(UM Legislative News Service) Taxes are shaping up to be one of the big debates of the 2019 Montana Legislature.

The budget estimates from the governor’s office and the Legislative Fiscal Division are roughly the same — about $10 billion over two years to fund a variety of state agencies and programs. The budget includes everything from education to the state’s share of Medicaid expansion.

But, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget proposal is asking for tax increases, mostly on tobacco and liquor. The increase would bring in more than $160 million in new revenue to help fund special programs, like investing $12 million into public preschools across the state.

Bullock said tax increases are necessary to keep a stable budget and that he doesn’t want the state to be set back by unexpected expenses, like in 2017, when the severe fire season depleted state resources.

“The Legislature’s saying, ‘Oh, we don’t need to increase the tobacco tax. We’re gonna have this $100 million that never appeared,’” Bullock said. “We could very well end up in the same position we were in.”

Governor Steve Bullock, (left) along with his budget director, Tom Livers, released the governor’s budget proposal for the 2021 biennium, on Thursday Nov. 15, 2018 in the Governor’s Reception room in the state capitol in Helena, Montana. (Eliza Wiley/Montana Free Press)

Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, is chair of the House Appropriations Committee. She said new programs, like grants that would provide $2.4 million for at-risk children, will be discussed. But, they wouldn’t be funded with any new sources.

“I’m not hearing anyone who has an appetite to increase taxes,” she said. “That’s no different than what we’ve talked about consistently.”

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said that while these new programs have merit and come with good intention, there’s a limited amount of funding.

“Our source of money is a taxpayer somewhere who wants to receive some services, but would rather not have his pocket completely empty,” said Jones, who is the chair of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee of Education.

The appropriations committees will work to fund state agencies before discussing any new programs.

Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.