We’ve gotten used to storm clouds building on the horizon in recent weeks. The outcome of those clouds, at least in Helena, has been welcome rain and lush, tall grass.
But there’s another storm brewing that may bear a closer resemblance to the tornado that tore the roof of the state’s largest indoor arena in Billings last weekend. Where’s the twister likely to touch down? At the building at the corner of Montana and Sixth Avenue right here in Helena. When, you ask, is this nasty storm going to arrive? Early January, when the Montana Legislature sets up its biennial shop.
Unlike that bout of severe weather that hit Billings over the weekend, forecasters have seen Montana’s financial storm brewing for months, although its predicted severity has varied. But the detailed forecast came about 10 days ago from the Legislative Fiscal Division, which outlined some ideas of how legislators might come up with the projected $400 million in savings that will be needed to have state government expenses match expected revenue.
The report contains its share of house-shaking lightning bolts:
n Closing Montana State University-Northern in Havre.
n Reducing state payments to schools and local governments by millions of dollars.
n Cutting the Department of Corrections budget by 10 percent, and releasing prisoners early.
n Furloughs, a fancy term for getting sent home from work with no pay, for state employees.
It’s obvious that $400 million is a boatload of money and saving it will require some drastic steps. And, of course, these ideas from the Legislative Fiscal Division are simply options, generated at the request of the Legislative Finance Committee looking ahead to the 2011 session.
Since the report was released earlier this month, the finance committee has met and discussed some of the ideas. It will be up to the committee to highlight those worth further pursuit. It’s a sure bet that there will be plenty of more meetings held before any firm ideas land in front of legislators early next year.
While the report included lots of ideas and didn’t always include figures for potential savings, it’s generated a lot of conversation on what is clearly going to be a tall task. After all, $400 million is about 10 percent of the state’s general fund budget.
Some of the ideas on the list appear to have more shock value than merit. For instance, Montana State University-Northern has seen declining enrollment but has many strong vocationally based programs and provides educational opportunities for a large chunk of our sprawling state.
It’s also unlikely there will be much support for saving money by releasing criminals from state prisons. An option of eliminating trust funds, our “rainy day” money, and shifting the cash to the general fund is unlikely to get serious consideration. And the significant number of the ideas aimed at cutting state spending on education which will only result in shifting of costs to local districts, many of which are already financially strapped. Such cuts also represent a sure-fire invitation for another lengthy, costly lawsuit over funding inequities.
But there are some ideas from the Legislative Fiscal Division that are certainly worthy of further exploration: Combining the state agriculture and livestock departments should have been done long ago. An idea to cut costs in the university system by combining administrative duties at community colleges has merit, as does combining the Montana Historical Society, Arts Council and Library Commission into a single cultural agency.
The idea of a four-day, 40-hour work week in appropriate agencies is worth checking into for possible savings. Other states have followed this course and could offer clues about whether such a plan could offer worthwhile savings.
And what about state-employee furloughs, a possibility raised by the fiscal division report? It’s likely that personnel savings of some sort will put the biggest dent in the $400 million anticipated shortfall. Do we prefer layoffs, which will permanently uproot lives, or furloughs that might produce only temporary savings but not cripple necessary programs? It’s a tough, unpleasant question but one that may need to be answered in coming months.
Of course, any big changes will likely require some buy-in from the governor’s office. To date, there have only been a few shallow expense-cut initiatives, odd promises of no state-employee job losses and unsubstantiated projections of an improved economy and revenue picture from the state’s top elected official.
The Legislative Fiscal Division report and the ideas it outlines represent a responsible first step in what is sure to be a highly charged legislative session starting six short months from now. While it’s too soon to run to the root cellar, getting an early start on preparations for what promises to be very nasty financial storm seems to be a very prudent idea.