As the next state legislature is poised to convene, at a time when every one is nervous about the economy, the words that are bouncing all over are “budget cuts.” Reduced revenues to state coffers leaves every one certain that no matter what else happens, state government is going to have to manage with less. And, it’s going to have to do that for some time to come, since it’s been projected that state tax collections will not reach the same 2008 rates until 2015.
Between legislative sessions, Governor Brian Schweitzer made cuts to keep the budget balanced, and since then others have bantered about proposals of their own.
Billings should be the 800 pound gorilla in the room at the state legislature, said Bruce McIntyre, Legislative Affairs Director for the Billings-area Chamber of Commerce, as he presented proposed policy positions on a wide variety of issues. The community often is not because it lacks a united front, he said.
At a meeting of the Executive Committees of the Big Sky Economic Development Authority (EDA) and the Big Sky Economic Development Corporation (EDC), members acted to recommend the approval of the policy positions to the full boards, which will meet later this month.
Forty-six percent of state employees make more than $60,000 in salary and benefits and 16 percent make more than $80,000, according to information provided by the Legislative Fiscal Division to a lawmaker who wants to cap employee pay.
The totals represent salary, longetivity and all benefits including insurance, Terry Johnson, the Legislative Fiscal Division’s principal analyst, wrote earlier this month to Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena. The report analyzes the salaries of 13,524 employees. Lewis said the report did not include the salaries of university employees, which the LFD does not have access to.
At a Legislative Forum on Tuesday the Montana Policy Institute released the state's first "Pork Report," a book that outlines wasteful state government spending and proposes budget savings.
The book, "Montana Pork Report: Wasted treasure in the Treasure State" is a joint product of MPI and Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to eliminating waste, fraud, and mismanagement.
"The Montana Pork Report just scratches the surface on the amount of taxpayer dollars wasted by Montana's state and local governments," CAGW Vice President for Policy David Williams said in a release. "... When the government is the largest employer in the state, and state agencies are spending $18 million on travel, Montana taxpayers deserve a smarter, more accountable government."
MSU-Billings College of Technology Dean John Cech will step into the vacant position of Deputy Commissioner for Two-Year and Community College Education in January, subject to final approval by the Board of Regents. Cech will succeed former Deputy Commissioner Mary Moe, who retired from the position.
The deputy commissioner is responsible for coordinating statewide educational programs at the two-year and community college level, administering federally-funded career and technical education programs.
Montana needs to look at its budgeting process in a whole new way if it is going to survive the fiscal challenges facing states, a University of Colorado economics professor ermeritus told nearly 140 state lawmakers and residents Tuesday at a forum on legislative issues in Helena.
Barry W. Poulson said Montana will be facing unfunded pensions and unfunded retirements in its next session and that the old way of budgeting was no longer effective.
"The first thing you need to do is change the way you budget," Poulson said. "You need to change to priority budgeting."
Poulson was one of several speakers at the daylong forum at the Red Lion Colonial Hotel sponsored by the Montana Policy Institute, which founded Montana Watchdog.
Poulson also serves as a senior fellow with MPI. Other speakers included Randal O'Toole with the Cato Institute, Jonathan Williams with American Legislative Exchange Council and Mike Tanner of Cato. The event was to discuss topics that state lawmakers will likely face in 2011, such as budgeting challenges, raising pension and health care costs and limiting the growth of government. All members of the Montana legislature were invited to attend the Legislative Forum, 15 senators and 39 representatives attended.
Carl Graham, MPI president, called for a return to sustainable government in which the state does not spend more than it collects.
"We don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem," Graham said.
He told the audience the forum goal was to provide them with the tools to make sound fiscal decisions regarding government, whether they are lawmakers or just curious residents.
"We're providing the stadium, we're providing the bat, we're providing the balls," he said. "You have to swing the bat."
Graham unveiled three reports at the event; a "Pork Report" which looked at government spending and waste; "Budgeting for Results," a fiscal roadmap for Montana; and "State Spending Growth and Future Deficits." The morning session was open to the public, the afternoon was for elected officials only.
"I'm really enjoying it," said Sarah Boyer of Helena, who came to the forum as a private citizen. "So many of the issues have concerned me for a long time. As a citizen I want to be more involved."
Poulson told the crowd he arrived in Helena on Montana and watched the state Legislature's finance committee on TV.
"It was a depressing program," he said. "When you let bureaucrats set the budgets you're in trouble."
He urged Montana to switch to priority budgeting, in which the functions of government would be outlined, and then complete a budget review process around the functions, and then how to determine the core functions.
Poulson said doing this analysis usually ends duplication and consolidates programs.
He said the state of Washington saved $3.8 billion by switching to this process.
Poulson encouraged Montana to find programs it could privatize.
O'Toole talked about property rights and said states with growth management laws had higher home prices. He urged people to continue to fight for property rights. Tanner outlined the health care crisis and predicted that system is so unpredictable that it would collapse under its own weight. He said the health care package commonly referred to as Obamacare would not be passed in the next congressional session, but would most likely be a campaign issue in 2012. Williams joined in the chorus of other speakers who said pension and healthcare issues for public employees are "ticking time bombs."
"There are two mistakes that states make," he said. "One; people do not work for the privilege of paying taxes and two; government cannot create wealth, it must be done in the private sector."
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