- Associated Press - Thursday, April 4, 2019

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The state budget bill is moving quickly through the Montana Legislature thanks to a healthy revenue stream compared with the previous session’s shortfall, though there is disagreement between the governor and legislative leaders over how much extra cash should be kept in reserve.

The bill that authorizes spending about $10.3 billion was endorsed by the Senate 27-22 on Thursday, with few amendments. It was passed by the House two weeks ago. It still needs a final vote in the Senate before it goes back to the House.

Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso said this year’s budget bill “is probably in as good a shape as we’ve seen in recent years.” The subcommittees did good work trying to be balanced and fair while also restoring funding that was cut following the 2017 session because of decreased revenues, he said.

“We didn’t have to do a lot of cutting. We didn’t have a whole lot of slush that we had to find room for. We didn’t have a whole lot of room for tax cuts, so it was kind of a status quo session,” Republican Rep. Eric Moore said Thursday.

The budget bill supported by the Republican majority has about a $210 million surplus, while Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday would rather have a $300 million cushion, or access to $300 million.

Republican Rep. Llew Jones said there’s $61 million in a budget stabilization account, a portion of which the governor would be able to spend before having to make budget cuts if revenues decline before lawmakers return in 2021. The criteria for accessing the stabilization money and the level of cuts the governor would be required to make before doing so are being negotiated as part of a bill sponsored by Jones. It has already passed the House.

“We’re trying to build a system that outlasts politics,” said Republican Rep. Nancy Ballance, co-chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Jones’ budget stabilization bill also calls for a bipartisan study on long-term budget stabilization and taxation, taking into account the state’s declining revenues from natural resources, its inability to capture taxes from the tourist economy and the growing e-commerce economy. The study also should consider the decline in individual income taxes as the state’s population ages along with increasing costs of health care, education, pensions and state infrastructure, the bill states.

Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, who is winding down his legislative service, said this year’s budget is balanced without general tax increases. But he cautioned: “There is change going on in our economy that we need to deal with in our tax system. I wish you good luck with that.”

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