As part of normal annual budgeting, state agencies under the governor’s authority have been asked to submit plans for how they would reduce spending by 5 percent next year on top of cuts and layoffs made earlier this year.
This spring, the Republican-controlled Montana Legislature cut some budgets as the state struggled with a decline in revenue, largely a result of slowed oil and gas development.
Additional cuts were made this summer under a plan negotiated with the Legislature. Gov. Steve Bullock and Budget Director Dan Villa identified an additional $70 million in reductions to plug budget holes because of continued revenue stagnation. About half of that amount came out of the fund the state uses to pay for wildfire suppression.
Montana Television Network reported Tuesday that Villa had asked agencies to submit plans for an additional 5 percent, citing a state law that allows the governor to reduce spending up to 10 percent without having to call legislators back to Helena for a special session.
Bullock’s office told Lee Newspapers the reduction plans were actually requested not for this year, but for the next fiscal year. Villa’s request was a routine part of budget planning, Spokeswoman Ronja Abel said in an email.
She said the initial MTN report cited the wrong law. (MTN later changed its story after talking with the governor's office.) She said the governor's request was made under a different provision that outlines normal budget planning authority and allows the governor to ask for 5 percent reduction plans. The authority to actually make those cuts is separate.
“The administration is ensuring it is ready to responsibly manage the budget as it was handed to us by the Legislature,” wrote Abel. “This includes identifying additional savings and efficiencies at all agencies in the event revenues are lower than expected.”
Bullock, who was flying over the Lolo Peak fire Tuesday with a photographer, declined to answer questions about the request. Villa was unavailable for comment or to immediately provide copies of the plans, the governor's office said.
If required to make deeper cuts, agencies would be hard pressed. Reductions implemented for the fiscal year that started July 1 already resulted in 20 part- or full-time jobs being cut; reduced hours and services at the Montana Historical Society; fewer social services for the elderly, people with disabilities and children in foster care; and left local school districts without long-awaited increases to special education funding, among other reductions.
Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian, who was in Helena Tuesday for a legislative meeting, said that any additional cuts to his agency would force the university system to “look at all kinds of options” and said students would likely face tuition increases to balance the budget.
“There’s no way it doesn’t have an impact on students and programs,” he said.