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HELENA — Republicans on a House committee voted Thursday to add $100 million to the state’s three-year revenue estimate, a move Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock criticized as being “more about politics than it was policy.”

The House Taxation Committee voted 12-8 to boost the revenue estimate in House Joint Resolution 2 over what it was last fall, with Democrats opposing it. It brings the total general fund revenue estimate for fiscal 2017, which ends June 30, and the next two years to $7.05 billion.

The revenue estimate is an educated guess on how much money Montana will collect from various taxes and interest earnings over three years. It is a critical number because the Montana Constitution requires a balanced budget in which state spending through appropriations doesn’t exceed anticipated revenues.

During the committee discussion, Republicans said they were comfortable with the higher number because of some economic trends.

For example, Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, said he’s seen a steady rise in cattle prices over the past few months.

Democrats said it was premature to add the $100 million to the revenue estimate and sought to postpone action awaiting more information.

Rep. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, called it “reckless” and “rushed” for the committee to approve the revenue estimate without seeing more totals from yet-to-be filed state income tax returns. A flawed estimate could mean a special legislative session later to adjust budgets, he said.

Rep. Jim Hamilton, D-Bozeman, said, “We do need to be right with this number, and part of being right is being cautious.”

In response, Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said, “I think we do have some very good numbers here.”

He said Bullock’s budget officials came to the hearing and failed to provide the committee with their financial models but instead distributed a one-page sheet. It was an attempt, Hertz said, to justify where Bullock administration officials want it to be “primarily, I believe, so that they can pass their so-called revenue enhancements and their tax increases.”

“We are exactly where we need to be,” Hertz said. “We got House Bill 2 (the budget bill) across the Senate floor. We’re getting very close to getting out of this session.”

At a press conference later Thursday, Bullock said Montana’s economy is healthy, but he condemned the committee action.

“Montanans can certainly be proud of the fact that our unemployment rate’s near stark lows,” the governor said. “They can be proud of the fact that we have more people working than ever before. Last week, we learned — and Montanans I think can take comfort — that we’re leading the nation in job growth. Those are all positive signs.”

The Republicans’ move, he said, is “more about trying to walk out of here saying they did their job than actually doing it or why they didn’t want to make hard decisions about increasing revenues or (making) further cuts.”

Bullock said he proposed a two-year budget that didn’t spend more than it brought in, funded essential services and left $300 million in reserves.

“If the Legislature walked out, passed House Bill 2 (the budget bill) tomorrow, didn’t do anything more with revenue, they’d be walking out guaranteeing that we’d be walking back in here at some point in the next two years for a special session,” he said. “And, again, I don’t think that’s how you manage a budget. I think Montanans expect more.”

He said the Montana would have to experience unprecedented economic growth to reach revenue levels estimated by the legislative committee.

“If they’re right, great,” he said. “If they’re wrong, I’ve always maintained money in the bank that can actually deal with those cushions. If they’re wrong, we’re doing mandatory cuts by the Fourth of July.”

An updated general fund status report released late Thursday by the Legislative Fiscal Division showed a projected ending-fund balance of $244.8 million by mid-2019, reflecting the updated revenue estimate and budget actions.

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