Senate Republicans in Montana released a plan today to tear down Governor Steve Bullock’s proposal for state funded preschool and instead start work on delayed state highway projects.
The budget for 2018 and ‘19 that Governor Bullock released last month included $12 million to start a pre-kindergarten program.
But, Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, says that’s not going to happen:
"What the heck? How did we get in the position where the governor is saying we don’t have the money to take care of existing things? And yet he has all these other proposals to start new programs."
Thomas, and Senate Republican leadership, is proposing to spend money in the state’s general fund, sometimes called the "rainy day fund," to pay the road construction. There is currently no funding source for those projects because that kind of work is usually paid for through the state’s gas tax.
And, a few weeks ago, the state Department of Transportation announced delays in scheduled road maintenance because of budget shortfalls in gas tax revenue. Governor Bullock does not want to use the "rainy day" fund to pay for road construction.
Federal matching dollars account for most of the funding for state highway maintenance. If the state pays $14 million, the federal government will add $130 million to the pot for construction.
It’s that $14 million that Republican leadership says they want to spend out of the general fund, instead of going to fund early childhood education.
But the governor’s Budget Director Dan Villa says it’s not that simple, because the early childhood program will be funded through taxes in the coming two years, not draw on the state’s general fund immediately:
"I don’t know which it is, bad with math, bad with the truth, or they’re bad with both," Villa says. "The release today didn’t solve a single problem."
In a statement today, Governor Bullock told Senate Republicans to "act like grown-ups" and work with him to pass a responsible budget.
Republican leadership says, early in the session, they will draft a dedicated bill blocking Bullock’s early childhood education program and appropriating general fund dollars to road construction.