Saturday, February 04, 2023

What to do with the surplus windfall?

by Courtaney Sprunger
| January 19, 2023 12:00 AM

“How the sausage gets made” is an expression often used in the legislative process. Like sausage making, the process of creating good legislation can be messy.

Last weekend, freshman legislators were invited to an event where we, in fact, made sausage and discussed the parallels to lawmaking. The conversation was timely. As state legislators, we are stepping into one of the most interesting seasons in Montana’s history. With an unprecedented surplus of approximately $2 billion, one could argue we’re not just making sausage – we’re working to build an efficient sausage factory to produce the best product for years to come.

Presently, there are numerous proposals floating through the Capitol. While each provides substantive, valuable ideas about how to manage the surplus, it seems none have fully addressed all our challenges.

A current proposal, HB 192, outlines a return of as much as half the surplus. Both the benefits and drawbacks of this bill merit serious consideration; in its present form, it has technical notes that indicate it may be difficult to execute. While all are eager to move forward, voting for a plan should mean ensuring it’s viable.

Fortunately, most Republicans agree that some percentage of the surplus needs to be returned. However, the amount and method are up for debate: Should the return be implemented through income tax returns? Do we provide property tax relief? What about those who have paid a business equipment tax? Will a check in the mail deliver the same benefit as tax credits and long-term tax relief? Consensus has yet to be reached.

There are legitimate considerations in managing this once-in-a-generation surplus. In tandem with any return, do we address the disrepair and decay of our state hospital and prison and along with mounting infrastructure demands?

Are those, in fact, debts that have accrued on our watch, ones which should be addressed before we can ethically expect a large return?

If we don’t tackle these deferred maintenance issues, it may cost more to fix in the near future or be a larger burden passed to our children. Meanwhile, if left unaddressed, how will we manage our increasing crime, mental health crisis and increasing infrastructure needs? Now is the time to carefully consider all the ramifications.

While sausage may be the chosen expression for creating law, this session seems to lend itself more to the analogy of caring for a home. Any wise homeowner will tell you, should there be a windfall, that it’s only responsible to address the leaking roof and sagging porch before booking a much-needed vacation. If the windfall is substantial, most will also pad their savings account, pay down debt, and put aside a little for a child’s future, as well.

Montana is our home. As lawmakers, we have the exigent burden of striking the right balance. Some return of the surplus is in order. But as we consider an amount, it seems wise to ask ourselves first: Do we have a thoughtful, comprehensive plan to care for this place we call home?

Rep. Courtaney Sprunger, R-Kalispell.

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