Thanks to unanticipated drops in income and energy tax collections and bills from the worst wildfire season in years, the state budget is coming up short to the tune of more than $220 million. Unlike the federal government, the state can’t just borrow money to make up the shortfall. There will have to be spending cuts or tax increases — or some combination of the two.

Make no mistake. This is a big deal. The governor’s budget director has outlined recommendations for cutting the entire deficit out of the budget. And the cuts will cause real pain for those who benefit from state programs. Because they are so dependent on the state’s general fund, the biggest cuts will come from the state departments of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) and Corrections and from education spending.

Cutting education spending won’t just make the problem go away. It will hand it off to local school districts and their taxpaying constituents and to Montana families and students in the form increased tuition at the state’s colleges and universities. If all the money cut from the University System were to be made up through tuition, rates would have to increase by some 46 percent.

And DPHHS programs are already cash-strapped. Chronicle reports have documented serious problems with foster care and other programs of last resort for less fortunate children — the most vulnerable among us.

To raise new revenue, Gov. Steve Bullock will have to call the Legislature into special session. He is urged to do so. In the past, he has proposed reasonable increases in consumption taxes on tobacco and alcohol as well as the bed tax and car rental taxes. All those have been rejected by lawmakers as well as a proposed increased income tax rate on money earned in excess of $500,000 annually.

Republicans, who have majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives have been and continue to be resistant to raising any taxes. But things have changed. And reasonable lawmakers of all stripes need to find their way to compromise.

Balancing the budget with spending cuts alone isn’t acceptable. Bullock should call legislators back to Helena to do the job we elected them to do. That includes adequately funding state government in a fair and reasonable way.

Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Don Beeman, community member
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Sarabeth Rees, community member
  • David Swingle, community member

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