By Deb Courson Smith

Montana’s state budget “good news” this week is being tempered by cuts to state services and education.

Revenue is coming in at up to $77 million more than predicted by the Legislative Fiscal Division (LFD). Debate about the budget forecast was contentious this year, with legislative leaders opting to go with the low-end forecast from the LFD rather than higher predictions from the governor’s budget office which are in line with current collections.

Even with money sitting in the bank, says Marco Ferro, director of public policy at MEA-MFT, the cuts are state law.

“Teachers have been laid off, retired positions have not been rehired, class sizes are going up – all unnecessarily at this point, because there’s obviously money in the budget to fund all of those things and then some.”

A salary increase for state employees was shelved as part of the cuts, and Ferro says that means a salary freeze that could last as long as five years – with more cuts to come.

“Higher ed is a great example. We just had a 5 percent tuition increase because of the $21 million shortfall. Some might say that’s a tax on families and students.”

The state’s principal legislative fiscal analyst, Terry Johnson, attributed the uptick in collections to stronger wages and corporate profits but cautioned he didn’t know yet if it’s part of a trend or a one-time return. Ferro says there was plenty of evidence when the Legislature was in session that higher revenues were part of a trend.

The budget cuts are state law for the next two years, unless a special legislative session is called to change the budget.

The LFD revenue report is online at at ht.ly/5mejw.