Balancing the state budget is among the most vital tasks facing the state Legislature as it meets in Helena every two years — and among the trickiest, given the myriad intricacies of Montana government’s 31 state agencies and 12,000 employees responsible for everything from administering public health plans to fighting summer wildfires.

In January, legislators came to Helena with a historic $2.5 billion surplus — and plenty of ideas for how to spend it, ranging from tax rebates to investments in housing, childcare and the state’s long-neglected mental health system. As of an April 7 status report, the Legislature had given at least preliminary support to more than 200 measures that spend on programs or cut taxes, enough to leave the state General Fund about $250 million below its minimum reserve threshold by the end of the two-year budget cycle that starts July 1.


What’s on the table as lawmakers negotiate major spending proposals

With the 2023 Montana Legislature entering its final weeks, one of the key items remaining on lawmakers’ to-do list is balancing the state budget — squaring the state’s expected revenues with agency budgets, tax cuts and one-off spending bills that, in some cases, total hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hemmed in by the balanced budget requirement enshrined in the state Constitution, lawmakers have to sort out that tangle of competing priorities before they can pack their bags and head home. That means picking winners and losers from a list of big-dollar spending proposals that could put notable amounts of public cash toward tax rebates, affordable housing, childcare, road repair projects and a teacher health insurance trust, among other causes.

For the benefit of citizens who are trying to understand what exactly their representatives are doing in the Capitol, we’ve put together the interactive graphic below in an effort to help you wrap your brain around the sorts of decisions lawmakers are pondering. Click or tap on different proposals, most of which reflect specific bills under consideration in the Capitol, to see how adding extra spending or cutting it would shift the budget around.   

Most of the information here has been adapted, with some creative liberty, from the fiscal division’s April 7 budget status sheet.

Note that the state budget takes pains to distinguish between 💰one-time (or one-time-only) and 🔄 ongoing spending. That’s an important distinction because one-time spending (e.g., building a traffic circle or giving out an economic development grant), doesn’t obligate lawmakers to spend again in the next budget cycle. In comparison, ongoing spending (e.g. hiring an employee who will need to be paid on an ongoing basis) does.

Lawmakers are trying to balance the budget in two primary domains: First, the ending fund balance, the result of ongoing and one-time spending, has to be big enough that the state can weather an unexpected storm — for example, if it turns out budget analysts overestimated how much will be collected in income taxes, or a nasty fire season drains the money budgeted for firefighting. Second, the budget has to be structurally balanced, meaning ongoing revenues are bigger than ongoing expenditures.

Note that, for the sake of illustrative clarity, this tool oversimplifies the full budget picture in a few important ways. For example, it focuses only on spending through the state General Fund, which means it doesn’t account for the billions of dollars in federal money routed through state coffers. It also ignores the state’s complex network of reserve accounts, where money is stashed for unanticipated eventualities. If you’re a lawmaker who’s responsible for voting on these bills, you should consult your staff at the Legislative Fiscal Division for professional advice.

This graphic was updated April 13, 2023 to include a figure that better represents the additional funding necessary to bring mental health provider rates in line with the recommendations of a state-commissioned rate study.

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Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.