- Associated Press - Friday, September 29, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Most of the proposed cuts aimed at balancing Montana’s budget fall within the governor’s authority to cut general fund spending by up to 10 percent, state budget analysts said Friday.

However, about $21 million of the $228.8 million in cuts proposed by state agencies and recommended by the governor’s budget director may violate state law or the Constitution, involve breaking contracts or violating union agreements.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s office will study the Legislative Fiscal Division’s legal review over the weekend and look forward to solutions being offered by the Legislative Finance Committee next week, said Ronja Abel, the governor’s spokeswoman.

“The governor remains hopeful legislators from both sides of the aisle will choose to work with him to find a more responsible way to balance the budget that does not do so on the backs of the most vulnerable Montanans and their families,” she said.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services would absorb the largest cuts, at $105 million in general fund spending, with a corresponding loss of $136.6 million in federal funding through June 2019. Most of the cuts come from eliminating optional Medicaid services.

However, budget analysts found a proposal to eliminate a health care case management program for foster children in Missoula, Cascade and Yellowstone counties may violate federal law. The agency’s cuts include required furloughs for employees that may violate union contracts, the review found.

Several agencies propose reducing payments listed in contracts or administrative rules.

“While state agencies are allowed to renegotiate contracts, they cannot unilaterally amend a contract” unless the contract language allows it, analysts said.

The Department of Justice has suggested the possible closure of the state crime lab in Billings, which would violate the state law that created the lab. Eliminating funding for six employees to draft presentence investigation reports could lead to violations of a law that set a 30-day deadline for completion of such reports while eliminating the use of contract attorneys as public defenders could lead to unconstitutional trial delays, the review found.

One recommendation is that the Office of Public Instruction reduce $2.8 million in general fund spending for block grants for schools. Analysts, however, note that the grants are mandatory under state law.

Cuts to the Montana State Library appear to eliminate a state publications depository library established under state law, the report said.

The Legislative Finance Committee is scheduled to meet next Wednesday and Thursday to make its recommendations on the budget.

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