Montana Viewpoint

September 1, 2002

I learned a few months ago that a state budget could be looked at as an indication of what’s important to a society: a statement of public values reflected by the apportionment of tax dollars. This is a pretty intriguing approach to me, and one that certainly does not seem to be reflected in Montanas budgeting process.

I am not criticizing those legislators who work on the state budget—the members of the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Finance Committee—just the way its done. Which is, of course, the way itâs always been done.

In Montana, as in 49 other states, the budget must always be balanced before the legislature leaves town. (Vermont is the exception.) The Revenue committees set the amount of money the state is expected to receive in the budget period, and the budgeting folks use that as the maximum amount of money that they can spend. Sort of like a household, so far.

Then it gets real different than a household budget. The budgeting committees of the House and Senate are divided into six subcommittees to work on budgets affecting different areas of government service. They are: Corrections and Public Safety, Education, General Government and Transportation, Health and Human Services, Long Range Planning, and Natural Resources and Commerce.

These subcommittees meet and hear testimony from proponents of their particular area. Take health and Human Services as an example. There will be bureaucrats; private providers of health care services; nursing home owners; hospitals; and representatives of the poor, the elderly, and the infirm. Theres more, but you get the picture.

The subcommittee must accommodate the needs of these various constituency groups with the amount of money they are allocated to spend. It cant be easy, and their meetings seem to go on forever.

The House members of these subcommittees than meet together in the full House Appropriations Committee to compare notes and to reconcile the amount of money each subcommittee has allocated with the total amount of revenue available, and thats the state budget in its earliest form. And thats enough about process.

Heres the criticism of the process. Legislators are dealing with people, but thinking in numbers. In other words, they are looking at the budget as a company ledger rather than looking at what they hope to accomplish (or not) for the citizens of the state. Its easy to do: I slip into it myself.

Maybe an analogy would be like cooking dinner for guests. You can look in the cupboard to see what you have available, and throw that together to make a meal, or you can decide what you want to have for supper, and round up the ingredients at the store. The first example is reactive to the current situation, the second is called planning.

We dont plan. We dont sit down beforehand to determine what our societal needs are, which ones are more important than others, and how we want to divvy up our resources among them. And if our resources are limited, that’s even more important.

In the Special Session last week, we had to decide among peoples health, education, weed eradication, and historical museums, to name a few. This round, peoples health lost. Is this where our values lie?

I think our values tell us that there isnt much left in state government that isnt important to us. That were at the end of the line of cutting services which obviously have serious supporters, where every choice we make gives an insubstantial sum to one program while removing a substantial sum from another.

Even the Republicans who control the Legislature were not able to reduce the recent budget deficit by cutting state services alone. Only a little more than half of the $54 million shortfall was made up by true cuts in government spending.

Its time that we all begin thinking about our values and what we want government to provide—not just for us, but for our neighbors, friends, and for folks we dont even know. Then we have to decide if were willing to pay for it.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620