The state Senate began deliberations on the state’s budget today, after the House massacred it earlier this session.
Republicans slashed $160 million in essential services in spite of Montana’s economic prosperity. Republicans refused 73 amendments and passed a budget in complete disarray, one that is unacceptable to our caucus and offensive to hard-working Montanans. These cuts will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable of our citizens while other measures and proposed tax cuts would deplete the $300 million rainy day fund.
There was no apparent rhyme or reason to the cuts, indeed many were blatantly stupid.
Take , for example, what the GOP legislature did to the budget of the Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks. Ignorant of, or simply ignoring the fact that out-of-state visitors alone pump $4 billion a year into Montana’s economy, the Montana House of Representatives has taken a blowtorch to everything that makes managing Montana’s parks and outdoor recreation efficient, well-run, and easily accessible.
Here are five of the most glaring examples:
1. HB 403 – the Republican answer to the portions of FWP that were contained in Governor Bullock’s Build Montana economic development bill (which while not dead has certainly been slashed to a bloody pulp).
The sponsor of HB 403 is Rep. Dave Hagstrom (TEA-Billings). Cowgirl readers are familiar with this guy and his comments about ballpoint pens and his letters to low income people about how they should expect to die soon. Hagstrom amended his bill to bar the department from spending it’s money on a whole list of responsible management programs. The House gutted public access and habitat funding from the bill.Hagstrpsaid he thought this was a good idea because he intends to eliminate these habitat and access programs for good in the 2017 Legislature. These programs were established by previous legislatures and are heavily supported by hunters and anglers. HB 403 passed the house today. The programs that were eliminated, and the programs that the legislature barred FWP from spending any money on, are listed here:
- Habitat Montana
- Upland Bird Habitat Enhancement Program
- Migratory Bird Program (reduced spending authority by 25%)
- Bighorn Sheep Habitat Program
- Fishing Access Site Acquisition Program
2. HB 234 – In case you haven’t been following this debacle, this one is one of the most idiotic of the bunch. Rep. Nancy Ballance is carrying this shooting range bill on behalf of gun nut Gary Marbut. This bill was debated on the house floor today. It actually requires FWP to dedicate $350,000/year to shooting ranges.
There is a big problem with doing this. The U.S. government has indicated this bill will create a diversion of FWP funds which will make Montana ineligible for $27 million in funds we get from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service–every year. This money pays for about 1/3 of all fish and wildlife management programs in our state. Not smart, right?
Ballance says she wants her shooting range program to become the FWP’s highest priority program–above anything else. No joke. She and Marbut said that if this money is not spent on shooting ranges, the overseeing officials are subject to fines and/or jail time. But here’s the kicker: Montana already has a shooting range program–we’ve had it for 25 years. And the shooting range program gets all the funding it needs through grants, so there is no need to force Montana to lose $27 million by trying to divert other money toward it.
3. HB 146 - This bill by Rep. Flynn should be called the “Hey tourists who spend $4 billion in Montana’s economy every year, we don’t want you here, so get the heck out of our state” bill. It forces a massive increase to non-resident hunting and fishing licenses and translates to a $1.4 million dollars loss to FWP’s work.
4. HB 2 – the primary bill funding all Fish Wildlife and Parks (and all agency) operations.
- The Legislature has failed to fund the full pay plan implemented by Gov. Bullock over the current biennium – in FWP that means another $750,000 reduction annually in funding for staff.
- The Legislature ruled that the the popular Block Management Program must be automatically removed from the budget after the next two years. The program has been successful for over 25 years, but is now uncertain into the future. There doesn’t appear to be any logic behind this.
- The Legislature refused to fund the work the Fish Wildlife and Parks must do to enforce the laws they themselves passed. Again, pure stupidity here. Is there anything more nonsensical than a group of folks who says, we demand that you do something, but we refuse to allow you to use the resources you need to do it?
5. HB 5 – the primary bill for all infrastructure needs
- The House of Representatives voted to bar the FWP from spending money on habitat and fishing access site programs. Note that I didn’t say cut the funding, the funding is STILL THERE. The agency is simply not allowed to spend it. Again, the legislature itself passed laws requiring these programs, and requiring that certain money can ONLY be spent on these programs. So the world class minds in the house have declared that $12.5 million dollars will simply be left to accumulate in an account. This means that many worthy projects may be lost–even though Montana has the money to spend on them and they are set up by the legislature itself.
There is one small bright spot, however. HB 140 is a good bill. -Rep. Jeff Wellborn (R-Dillon) is carrying it and it is estimated to generate an additional $5.7 million per year that will allow FWP to sustain its current programs out to 2021. Without this legislation, FWP will need to reduce its current programs by the $5.7 million during the next biennium to stay within its current revenue stream. HB 140 passed out of the House on a solid vote of 70- 30, but has yet to be heard in the Senate. The bill needs to stay as is and pass the Senate with no amendments if at all possible.
If amendments are added in the Senate, it must return to the House or be banished to a conference committee if the house rejects the amendments. And everyone knows that this session, most bills that must be sent to a conference committee appointed by leadership are being sent to their deaths.