One of the more heated debates during Montana's 2011 legislative session centered on state revenue projections. Republicans, who held strong majorities in both houses, sought to slash the budget. Underestimating revenues is a good place to start, since the Montana Constitution stipulates that the legislature's appropriations can't exceed anticipated revenues. The parties' projections differed by hundreds of millions of dollars. In the end, Republicans largely got what they wanted: a budget cut of about six percent that starved all sorts of social programs.
As it turns out, those conservative revenue projections were way off. The state is looking at a general fund budget surplus of more than $400 million.
Now, in a political jujitsu move, Attorney General Steve Bullock, the Democratic candidate for governor, wants to capitalize on that pile of cash. Bullock recently proposed using $100 million of the surplus to give homeowners one-time property tax rebates of $400. He said last week that the money, the result of the state's sound fiscal management (read: Republicans wringing government dry), will allow families to "take the kids out to dinner, put a down payment on a snowmobile, maybe buy some fencing."
Yes. A snowmobile. That'd be sweet.
It's a familiar appeal to voters. In 2007, Gov. Brian Schweitzer pushed the same rebate through the legislature.
Bullock's opponent, Republican Rick Hill, called Bullock's proposal a "one-time gimmick that won't do anything to stimulate the economy." Instead, Hill is calling for permanent property tax relief that would save homeowners that $100 million every year (so we can also cover the monthly payments on our new snowmobiles). The revenue shortfall would be made up, of course, from more energy development—fracking, mining Otter Creek's coal and so on.
It feels icky to be offered money that Republicans cut from social programs. But more than that, isn't it somewhat ironic that Bullock's dangling $400 in front of voters' noses?
Our intrepid attorney general is leading the fight against the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which has allowed corporations to spend ungodly amounts in support of their candidates. Conservative casino mogul Sheldon Anderson, for example, just gave a pro-Mitt Romney Super PAC $10 million. Bullock rightly argues that billionaires like Anderson shouldn't be able to buy votes.
So Bullock should know better.