The 2011 state budget battle

The money is there! MEA-MFT and our many allies side with Governor Schweitzer's office, which says the state has enough revenue in its coffers to fund the state pay plan, higher education, public schools, and state services. 


The governor's budget is a bare-bones budget that simply maintains minimal levels of funding.


The Republican majority in the legislature insists the money is not there. They plan to cut millions of dollars -- unnecessarily -- from the state budget. 


It all happens in House Bill 2. 

Most Montanans want to live in a state we can be proud of: a state with educated citizens, safe communities, and decent roads — a state where neighbors help each during tough times.


But the majority party that swept into power in the November 2010 elections clearly does not value the public services and employees that make Montana a good place to live.


When the Montana Legislature convened in January, Republican legislators wasted no time. By January 11, ignoring revenue estimates that show Montana has enough money to fund Governor Schweitzer’s proposed budget, they slashed $500 million from the governor’s budget, making radical cuts to all state agencies and education.


The cutting didn't stop there. At one point, the Republican-dominated Appropriations subcommittees cut $1.5 billion from the governor’s budget, including $78 million from k-12 schools, $38 million from higher education, and $500 million from the Dept. of Public Health and Human Services — all gone with little public input and no consideration of the real impact on Montana’s people and economy.


MEA-MFT fought the cuts and has managed to restore some of them. But as this newsletter goes to print, the state budget remains in tatters, with hundreds of cuts to the core public services that make it possible for families, communities and businesses to thrive.


The cuts will destroy hundreds of existing jobs across the state, from teachers to state employees to private businesses with state contracts. This will have severe ripple effects throughout Montana’s economy.


Read current details of budget cuts as of April 8.

MEA-MFT is fighting back:
MEA-MFT continues to fight the senseless cuts with all the might we have. Our lobbyists continue to testify about the real impacts the cuts will have on the people, communities, and economy of Montana.


Our members have pitched in as never before, attending our Day of Action Jan. 17 and rally Feb. 21, contacting legislators, and writing letters to the editor.


And MEA-MFT is working with a broad and growing statewide coalition of concerned citizens and organizations — including other unions, clergy, students, small business owners, and groups that advocate for seniors, children, people with disabilities, and many others — to reverse the cuts.


“We’re keeping the pressure on,” said Feaver. “We want legislators to look citizens in the eyes when they tell them their schools and services are being cut.”

How you can help:

• Come to the No Fooling with our Future Rally April 1.

Stay informed: Follow issues at this web site. E-mail MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver and ask to join his list serve for the most up-to-date legislative information (


Contact your legislators. They need to hear from their local voters. Use our quick e-mail system:


Tell your friends: Talk with family, co-workers, and friends about these issues.


Speak out: Write a letter to the editor of your local newsletter calling on legislators to reverse the budget cuts.



Montana isn’t broken

By Carol Williams and John Sesso


For months, Republicans in Montana have tried to cast our state as the most bloated, broken, bankrupt state in the nation. Our Republican colleagues would have you believe we Montanans are responsible for the global recession, that we’ve lost our innovative spirit, and that we just can’t compete anymore.


But let us tell you about the Montana we see.


We see a state that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked No. 1 for entrepreneurs and business start-ups. We see a state that Forbes magazine called one of the fastest climbers among business-friendly states. We see a state with the fastest growing oil production in the nation. We see a state that just opened its first new coal mine in 29 years, producing 235 good jobs. In Butte, we’re proud of the new foundry and 60 workers that are making titanium parts for customers around the world.


Montana isn’t broken, and come on: Montana didn’t cause the financial mess that brought our nation to its knees. But you know what: It will be our Montana values and common sense that carry us through these tough times.


At the Legislature, we’ll get our work done. We’ll make sure government lives within its means — just like in 2009, when we passed a balanced budget and left $300 million in the bank to ride out the downturn we saw coming. We’re still in the black today, and the budget we pass for the next two years will keep us there. At the same time, we will eliminate the business equipment tax for most small businesses, reduce homeowners’ property taxes, and keep a healthy balance (more than $100 million) in savings to protect against any more bumps in the road.


Montana runs pretty darn well. That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement, and in these leaner times, we’ll need to make some hard choices and be more effective in delivering the core services that our citizens deserve. But if we remember what has worked in the past — investments in our people, in education, in creating opportunities for all Montanans — we can build on our strengths and move Montana forward.


We know what we need to do. We had nearly 100 business leaders from across the state in Helena last weekend to share their ideas. Not one asked us to roll back education and work force training. Not one asked us to eliminate the laws that preserve the natural beauty of the state and protect our families. Not one asked us to fix problems that don’t exist.


Businesses asked for stability and fairness. They asked us to preserve our investment in Montana’s people with a quality education system at all levels. They asked us to find ways to end instability caused by rate hikes for workers’ compensation insurance and health insurance.


We have a lot of work to do in the next four months, and we can’t be distracted with the old ideas that have been rejected in the past. Instead of dire predictions about our future, we need to be focused and innovative building on Montana’s strengths for prosperity that lasts.


Sen. Carol Williams of Missoula is the Senate Minority Leader. Rep. Jon Sesso of Butte is the House Minority Leader  



Budget Background: Below is an excellent summary of the budget battle to come in the 2011 Legislature, and why MEA-MFT supports the governor's budget.

Horse Sense

by Charles S. Johnson, IR State Bureau | Posted: Sunday, January 2, 2011 12:00 am


Over the next four months, members of the 2011 Legislature will be debating dozens of complex and weighty issues about Montana’s future.


They will be discussing, among others, the state’s economy, its education systems, its taxes, its environmental protections, its programs to help the poor.


Lawmakers also will be taking up agonizingly difficult life-and-death issues like the death penalty, abortion and assisted suicide. They will be discussing how to crack down on drunk driving and how to rein in if not repeal the state’s medical marijuana system.


As important as all of these issues are, in the end the Montana Constitution assigns the Legislature just one primary duty. Article VIII, Section 9, says: “Balanced budget. Appropriations by the Legislature shall not exceed anticipated revenue.”


That budget-balancing responsibility is the one major issue that keeps lawmakers debating right up until the session adjourns. It always is.


This year, the budget debate figures to be even more intense because of the declining state revenues over the past two fiscal years. The Legislative Fiscal Division projects that state tax collections won’t hit the levels reached in fiscal 2008 until 2015.


First, here’s a recap of Democrat Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed spending plan, which is likely to be scrutinized carefully and modified by committees in the House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans.


Schweitzer proposed a two-year, $3.7 billion state general fund state budget that includes tax cuts for homeowners and eliminates the business equipment tax for all but the largest companies. He called for boosting spending for K-12 and higher education and giving state employees pay raises of 1 percent and 3 percent in January 2012 and January 2013, respectively.


He pulls it off through a series of fund transfers, or shifting money from various pockets intended for particular uses and dumping it into the general fund. He also drains some other specific funds and moves the money into the general fund.


He pays for the K-12 funding by taking $38 million a year in oil and gas revenues going to school districts in oil and gas producing counties and distributing it to all schools statewide.


Now it’s the Legislature’s turn.

“The biggest problem with the (governor’s) budget is it isn’t balanced,” said incoming Senate Finance and Claims Chairman Dave Lewis, R-Helena. “We’ve never been in this kind of economic situation before.


“We have 120,000 people on food stamps. I just don’t think this is the time when you can continue to spend more than you bring in. If we were looking at a dramatic growth in employment and income over the next five years, you might be able to make the case for it.”


Lewis cited Legislative Fiscal Division figures showing a $383 million “structural budget gap” in state spending. That means spending is expected to continue outpacing anticipated revenues by that amount over the next two years.


Schweitzer proposed closing that gap by raising his revenue estimates by more than $100 million over his earlier estimates, spending down the ending fund surplus, transferring funds and other proposals.


Lewis, a former state budget director for Republican and Democratic governors, acknowledged that the structural balance issue isn’t one that grabs people outside the Capitol.


“Nobody gets it because the governor says everything’s fine,” Lewis said.


Here’s how Lewis would explain the concept of a structural budget gap to people who aren’t budget wonks: “Would you go out and buy a $50,000, four-wheel drive, fancy pickup when you might be out of work tomorrow?”


A key Democrat, incoming House Minority Leader Jon Sesso of Butte, has a somewhat different take than Lewis. Sesso, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee in 2009, said he believes the state has faced similar budget concerns in the past, when they are adjusted for scale.


“My philosophy with the structural balance has always been that it’s an important measure of how to balance the needs of Montanans with the revenues that we’re generating,” Sesso said. “I believe that it’s an important consideration for when we’re deciding on what the priorities are going to be this term and for the foreseeable future.”


Sesso said he considers Schweitzer’s budget “a decent start” demonstrating the governor’s priorities are “the needs of the people.”


The Legislature’s main focus will be to continue to find ways to continue to grow and expand Montana’s economy as it recovers from the national recession.


“The best way we can do that is balance this budget, stay within our means, so we don’t have a crisis in state government,” Sesso said.


“I don’t want to pooh-pooh structural balance. At the same time, I’m not going to be concerned if we are a little off on structural balance and we still have money in the bank. That constitutes a balanced budget and a product that we can present to Montana.”


Lewis’ more rigid and Sesso’s more flexible stands on the structural balance issue likely reflect the difference between the two parties.


With Republicans controlling both chambers and a Democrat sitting in the governor’s chair, this debate over structural balance may play out until the waning moments of the session.


Charles S. Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at 447-4066 or