HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock unveiled a budget Monday for the 2023 biennium that he said was balanced, would leave a $251 million general fund ending balance, and protect services Montanans rely on without making cuts or raising taxes or require new increases in revenue.
The Democratic governor said the state budget has weathered the COVID-19 “storm with exceptional strength” and “If the next administration and Legislature do decide to cut government services, it will be based on ideology and not necessity.”
Bullock is also proposing $10 million for early childhood education.
A spokeswoman for Republican Governor-elect Greg Gianforte said he looked forward to reviewing the Bullock proposal.
"With state spending increasing by 60% over the last 10 years, Governor-elect Gianforte thinks it's critical to hold the line on new state spending," Brooke Stroyke said.
Gianforte, who takes office Jan. 4, has until Jan. 7 to make budget amendments, she said. Bullock could not seek another four years due to term limits.
Bullock is also proposing a $4.6 million investment in need-based aid for residents seeking two or four-year degrees at Montana universities or colleges. He proposes an $18 million increase over the biennium for the university system, and $5 million toward the Montana Research and Economic Development Initiative.
The $12.6 billion two-year budget, which includes federal dollars, also fully funds Medicaid expansion. The general fund budget for the biennium is $5.35 billion.
Bullock also called for $499 million statewide infrastructure package including a proposal to bond $91.5 million in projects to take advantage of low interest rates.
He said his budget calls for transferring $75 million from the budget stabilization reserve into the general fund while leaving $40 million in that fund. He said the money was set aside as a "rainy day fund" to deal with consequences from outside forces.
The wildfire suppression fund will have about $85 million or enough to cover the cost of four average fire seasons.
"My proposal utilizes the budget stabilization reserve for its exact intent, to mitigate the need for budget reductions or revenue increases in abnormally challenging times," he said.
He said the budget also builds on the accomplishments of previous legislative sessions.
Bullock said the budget includes "modest increases for mental health services at the Department of Corrections, suicide prevention funding, and restoration of Indian Country economic development and language preservation programs.
"Yet I am optimistic about what can continue to be accomplished with the budget I am leaving for the next administration and Legislature today," he said. "Montana entered this challenging year in an incredibly strong fiscal position. I am pleased now to leave it in a similarly strong position ..."
Heather O'Loughlin, co-director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center -- a nonprofit group that does research and analysis on budget, tax and economic issues. -- said Bullock's budget maintains critical funding, including support for schools and teachers, services for seniors and those with disabilities, and access to health care.
"At a time when families are struggling and communities continue to feel the impact of deep budget cuts from 2017, further budget cuts are not the answer to rebuilding Montana’s economy,” she said.
MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.