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State coffers in Montana not as flush as some think

December 2, 2005View for printing

For all the talk of a $300 million surplus, Montana's financial health is not as robust as it appears, a trio of speakers told the Montana Taxpayers Association meeting Thursday.

"It's not all sunlight. There are some clouds out there," said David Ewer, budget director for Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

For starters, Ewer doesn't like the term "surplus," which he criticized as unrealistically "breezy." He preferred the weightier euphemism, "fund balance." Which, he said, is nowhere near $300 million.

Terry Johnson, principal analyst for the Legislative Fiscal Division, concurred, saying that a more realistic figure is about $135 million. That's because the Legislature already anticipated it would have an extra $162 million on hand next year.

When viewed that way, they said, the picture is more sobering, especially considering that lawmakers are proposing a $125 million infusion next year for the state's hemorrhaging pension plan, and that a court-mandated school-funding solution could cost anywhere between $70 million and $100 million next year.

"I'm actually thankful to be a budget director with money," Ewer said, "...but we will live within our means." He said Schweitzer's administration wants to ensure there's an extra $100 million in the general fund for 2008-09.

By GWEN FLORIO Tribune Capitol Bureau

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