- Associated Press - Thursday, January 5, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana government agencies volunteered Thursday to return a combined $5.5 million that had been budgeted to them this year, which is about $15 million short of what Republican legislative finance leaders had been seeking to help the state’s bottom line.

One after another, department heads appeared Thursday before the House Appropriations and Senate Finance and Claims committees, which had called on agencies to voluntarily relinquish what money they could spare. Most said their operations are as lean as can be, and any further cuts would be harmful to their operations and services they provide.

“We don’t have anything to give for 2017,” said Department of Public Health and Human Services director Sheila Hogan.

The call for voluntary agency cuts is the first step in what is anticipated to be intense budget negotiations. The governor’s office and Republican financial legislative leaders are already in disagreement in the session’s first week about how to balance the budget and build up the state’s savings after revenues fell short of expectations last year.

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa, said the governor’s proposed budget already includes $38 million in savings for this year, and another $100 million in 2018 and 2019. The cuts that Republican legislative leaders are seeking beyond Bullock’s plan simply go too deep, Villa said.

“That’s not only to the bone, you’re losing limbs,” he said. “You’re going to have fewer snowplow drivers, you’re going to have fewer child protective workers, you’re going to have all of those things then go away, even more than they are now.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nancy Ballance and Senate Finance and Claims Chairman Llew Jones set a goal of $20 million to be relinquished state agencies. Those agencies’ budgets would be reduced by that amount, and the cash turned over would go toward the 2017 ending fund balance.

Agencies that voluntarily comply would have 30 percent of that money returned in 2019, when revenues are expected to improve.

Jones said giving the agencies a chance to explain and defend their budgets is a necessary exercise that will be useful as budget committees start to dig into state spending in the coming weeks.

“We saw there is potential here,” Jones said. “Some agencies presented reasons today, some agencies didn’t present reasons today.”

Among those agencies that did offer to return some of this year’s budget funds included the state Department of Justice, which is run by Republican Attorney General Tim Fox. The department agreed to return $1.7 million in general fund money, though Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion said it is risky to do so because of the agency’s possible litigation expenses.

The state’s court system, which is a separate branch of government, agreed to return $1.2 million, which is the amount that the Legislative Branch agreed to return. Six other agencies agreed to return smaller amounts of between $50,000 and $500,000.

That $5.5 million total will be included in a supplemental appropriations bill, a measure for agencies to request additional money for this year because of unexpected expenses.

Four agencies are seeking $22 million in that measure, which means that even with the money being voluntarily relinquished, the requests for additional funding for this year will still be $16.5 million.

Later Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee voted to trim $179,861 from an $11 million bill that funds the Legislature’s expenses, with Ballance saying the Republican majority wants to make clear “that we’re committed to responsible budgeting.”

Villa noted that even with those reductions, the so-called “feed bill” still calls for a double-digit increase in funding for the Legislature compared to last session, whereas they are seeking actual spending reductions from state agencies.

“We’d hope they’d realize what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, but we’ll wait and see,” Villa said.

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