Lawmakers hear first bill on how to spend surplus

Sam Wilson Holly Michels

As Montana legislators start the only task they’re constitutionally obligated to complete — pass a balanced budget — this session they’re navigating uncharted waters.

“It’s just unusual times,” said House Appropriations chair Llew Jones, a Republican from Conrad, in a meeting last week.

That might be an understatement. Among other factors, higher incomes fueled by federal pandemic-tied infusions into the economy created an estimated $2.4 billion surplus. That needs to be spent, though where is a matter of some debate; and saved, though how much is also a point of contention.

And even as lawmakers deal with the buzz of an economic excess, they’re also preparing for what most expect to be a possible recession within the next year. That could emerge as a hangover triggered by high inflation combined with slowing growth, rising interest rates and any number of other factors from supply chain issues to the war in Ukraine.

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“I don’t want to use the word unprecedented a lot, but we certainly have some unprecedented things happening,” said Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget director Ryan Osmundson in a hearing last week.

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