Halftime update from the State Senate: Balancing the budget is a balancing act

Jon Sesso
Senate District 37

When my wife Barb and her partner opened their restaurant in 1985, money was tight – both for the business and at home. They started with lunches only, and then as income allowed, they hired more employees and offered dinners and catering services. In 32 years since, they’ve been successful by always finding the right balance between income and expenses.

When I look at the state budget, the same principles that drive business success come to mind: when money is tight, take a hard look at expenses and adjust.

The good news is that we started this session in the black, thanks largely to good planning last time and the Governor’s insistence to leave a healthy operating reserve in the bank. The bad news is there’s flat out less revenue available to operate in the next two years.

In January, Governor Bullock presented his budget – a fair, responsible proposal that relied on a mix of spending cuts and propositions to generate more revenue. He also proposed robust investments in  Montana’s infrastructure that would keep Montanans working and the state economy strong.

The Governor’s plan included nearly $75 million in targeted cuts affecting every state agency across the board. Those agencies will have to provide the same level of services with less, despite higher operating costs. When the majority Republicans came into this session, rather than considering the Governor’s revenue propositions and moving quickly on the infrastructure plan, they made additional cuts – as much as $50 million more. These cuts are much harder to take because they jeopardize critical services for our communities, seniors, and students.

These budget cuts aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet; they affect people’s lives across the state. As the session moves into the second half, Democrats will focus on two tracks: 1) restoring some of the deep cuts made to our health and education budgets; and 2) getting the infrastructure program approved and off the ground.

But here’s where the balancing act gets much more challenging.  If we want to restore certain cuts, we need more money. To get more money…that’s right, raise taxes.  But let me be clear:  there’s not a single legislator – Democrat or Republican – that wants to burden working families by increasing taxes. Of course, we could just walk away and let spending reductions run their course.  Or, we can consider options that might make a difference in the lives of many Montanans.

For instance, we can consider where we’ve gotten money before in tough times – increasing the tax on alcohol and cigarettes. Taxes on these products have traditionally funded the same human services programs that may be severely cut this session. Other options address tax fairness, for example, by making sure businesses that sell products and services online pay their share, just like businesses on Main Street in every town in Montana, or by closing the loophole that shields off-share, multi-national corporations from paying their fair share to do business in Montana.

The choices are not easy, and compromises will be needed.  I think there’s reason for optimism. First, contrary to popular opinion, legislators on both sides of the aisle agree on far more than we disagree. For example, of the 657 votes cast on the Senate floor so far this session, only 74 of them have been taken along party lines. Some issues will always divide the parties, but we can’t let those differences impede the necessity to find solutions. As I said at the outset of the session, Democrats stand ready to be in the majority of legislators advancing the best ideas for all Montanans.

While we’re home for the session break, legislators will pick up our mid-term grades from you, our bosses. We’ll return for the second half with your input in mind. If we stay focused on finding the right balance, working with Governor Bullock and our colleagues across the aisle, we will pass a budget that makes responsible investments in our communities, our workers, and our economy.

Senator Jon Sesso is the Senate Minority Leader. He represents Butte, Senate District 37. He served in the Montana House of Representatives from 2005-2012 and has served in the Montana State Senate since 2013.