Montana Viewpoint
A proposed spending cap limits the ability to address the public’s changing needs.

March 6, 2006

A citizen initiative is in the works that would amend the Montana Constitution to limit state government spending. The effort is being promoted by a group of Republican legislators who feel that the last legislature, which was controlled by Democrats for the first time in 10 years, spent too much money.

A December 14, 2005, press release by Republican legislators Representative Scott Mendenhall and Senator Joe Balyeat claimed, “Taxpayers are being fleeced by the Democratic leadership in power.”

Curiously enough, the only time an existing spending limitation in state law has been exceeded was by the 2001 Republican legislature which overspent the limit by $58.5 million.

In the 2005 special session a motion to put this spending limit initiative on the ballot was defeated on a pretty much party line vote. Of the 62 Republican House and Senate members who voted to put the initiative on the ballot, only 29 had been in the 2001 session. Of those 29, 19 had voted for the major legislation responsible for putting the 2001budget over the limit.

The question arises; are Mendenhall and Balyeat protecting us from the wrong party?

Prior to the December 2005 special session, the Montana Attorney General ruled the 1981 law unconstitutional, finding that a current legislature’s budget authority cannot be impeded by the actions of a preceding legislature.

I won’t go into the intricacies of the current proposal—and it is intricate—other than to say it limits the amount of spending to a formula controlled by population growth and inflation. In that it is similar to other spending limits being introduced or already in place in several states; limits that are now being challenged by the citizens of those states.

On its face, it may seem a reasonable approach, however among its many flaws is a whopper; its key measure—the number of people in a population—reveals nothing about the kind of people in the population. For example, it doesn’t take age into account.

The cold fact is that as the makeup of a group of people changes in age, the group’s needs change. If they didn’t you could just chug away like clockwork.

But by golly, that just doesn’t happen, and if you don’t believe me just look at the coming wave of baby boomers who are reaching retirement age. This age group eats government health care services for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and the more of them there are, the more costly it is to provide services to them.

Of course, there is a choice. We can let them fend for themselves as they did 50 years ago, or do the right thing and give them what they need and deserve; and that blows the spending cap formula all to smithereens. Oh, sure, you could hang tough and not cave to their selfish desires, but this is politics, right? And the elderly vote, and there aren’t many politicians who ignore that.

Which is the whole point; there is already a very good system of checks and balances in place to keep spending in line with the public’s wishes. They are called elections.

Now I’ve gone through some logic here that I think is pretty good, but I also know it’s not worth a hill of beans to the people pushing the spending cap because they are unshakable in their belief that nothing good comes of government and that it should be “drowned in a bathtub,” as a leading proponent of these types of proposals says.

They are people who have a goal and are looking for catchy ways to sell it. They can find a sales pitch easy enough, but the sales pitch doesn’t make the goal any better.

Folks, we have government because we want it. We ask government to spend money on things because we want them; we want crooks and murderers in jail, we want to be healthy in our old age, and we want our kids to have an education. And for the most part we understand that we have to pay for this.

There is no one size fits all formula that will ensure that spending never exceeds a certain arbitrary number, because things are always changing. A society needs the flexibility to address its changing needs and the amount of money it spends on them, and that flexibility is accomplished very well throughout the world with the electoral process.

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