Projections put the state’s budget shortfall over the next two years at around $300 million. Even with this looming deficit, Rep. Dave Wanzenried (D-Missoula) and some of his fellow Democrats believe budgets have been gutted far too badly already. To cut anymore would be catastrophic.
“We’re talking about wholesale emasculation of public services,” says Wanzenried. It’s time, says the District 68 Repesenative, to start generating new revenue through taxes.
“It won’t be income taxes but it will be cigarette and alcohol taxes and that will get us part of the way there,” he says.
Wanzenried also thinks a proposal by Rep. Ron Erickson (D—Missoula) to create a progressive corporate income tax that would apply higher rates to large companies is something that should be explored. Many Democrats believe the state has been too generous with big corporate tax breaks only to see the business dollars leave the state.
But many Republicans aren’t convinced that lowering corporate taxes was a bad idea.
“We have the big businesses here because we did cut their taxes,” says Rep. Sylvia Bookout-Reinicke (R-Alberton). “I know for a fact that Stone Container would be gone by now if we hadn’t lowered their taxes and so would other companies.”
Many Republicans also think that finding a little new revenue will help but that it won’t be enough to balance the budget without trimming wasteful government spending.
“There’s a lot that can be done with department budgets,” says Bookout-Reinicke. “Every department is searching and doing their best and I know that $300 million is a lot to make up, but if everybody pitches in we can do it.”
But Democrat Wanzenried doesn’t think Bookout-Reinicke’s math works out.
“We’re going to cut human services again, we’re going to cut education again and we’re going to cut the university system again and that will get us maybe $150 to $200 million,” he says. “That’s only about a half to a third of what we need and it’s the next $100 million that is going to be extremely damaging.”
Some of the new Republican faces, ones that didn’t sign no-tax-increase pledges like Bookout-Reinicke, are less opposed to finding new sources of revenue as long as the corporations’ taxes aren’t raised.
Lawrence Anderson, a Republican and former Missoula City Council member who is running against Democratic incumbent Ron Erickson in House District 64, has a three-prong plan that follows many Republicans’ ideology and doesn’t raise big businesses’ taxes. Along with the omnipresent budget slashing, the plan uses more money from the coal tax trust fund and increases taxes on luxury items like cigarettes and alcohol.
The dire nature of the situation has stepped up the cross-party blame game but it has also made any strategy, no matter how hare-brained or partisan, an option to consider.
“Ron’s [Erickson] an archenemy so to speak on the other side of the political spectrum,” says Haines. “But I think he works very hard to understand taxes and may have something that’s worth doing.”