Responding to Excuses About Local Budgets
"Fiscally conservative budgeting takes political courage. Montana taxpayers should hold their local officials accountable for excessive budget growth."
Last month, I published a column titled “Uncontrolled Spending Burdens Taxpayers.” In it, I called attention to massive increases in many Montana city and county budgets that far exceed population growth plus inflation over the last decade. I pointed out that this pace of uncontrolled spending growth is guaranteed to increase what property owners must pay the government and warned this growing burden could come in the form of property tax hikes, increased “non-tax” assessments and fees, or some other burden. Finally, I argued for a renewed commitment to the principles of fiscal responsibility by placing firm limits on the growth of government budgets.
It’s not a radical proposition that the growth of government budgets should be kept in check. Yet, my column provoked the ire of some sensitive local officials. One Gallatin County Commissioner called me “malicious” even a “nihilist” for suggesting that his government may be spending more than what taxpayers can afford. I guess some politicians would prefer Montanans accept property tax hikes with no fuss.
Rebuttals to my analysis have relied on heavy spin to excuse the excessive growth of local government budgets over the last decade. I’ll address a few of these common rebuttals below:
Rebuttal #1: The Federal Funding Excuse
The first excuse argues that federal grants or stimulus funding are the result of federal budget decisions, not local decisions, and therefore should not be factored into an analysis of local budget growth. First, even when federal funds are factored out, many local governments are still spending in excess. For instance, even with all federal dollars factored out Gallatin County’s budget still doubled over the last decade, outpacing population growth plus inflation by 55.2%.
Second, it’s not unheard of for one-time funding to be spent on budget items that turn into on-going obligations for local governments once the outside funding dries up. Looking at overall spending, including federal funding, gives the best picture of the growing footprint of government.
Third, it’s quietly overlooked that unlike state governments, federal ARPA funds can be used by local governments for tax relief. Local governments could be using ARPA funds to provide relief to property owners – they simply choose not to.
Rebuttal #2: The Double Count Excuse
Some current and former local officials have responded claiming nearly all local budget increases that exceed population growth plus inflation can be explained by “double counting” of interfund transfers. Once this “double counting” is factored out, these officials believe local budget increases are “minimal.”
But this theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. For instance, the Legislative Fiscal Division uses a comprehensive methodology to track local government budgets while addressing “double counting” and the available data shows the City of Missoula’s budget growth exceeded population growth plus inflation by 35% between FY 2015 – 2021, putting residents on the hook for millions in additional spending.
Rebuttal #3: The “Cutting Services” Excuse
Other responses from local officials have relied on scare tactics which conflate limiting budget growth with budget cuts. On the contrary, I’m not proposing reducing existing services. I’m proposing local governments should control the growth of spending on new and existing services.
Under Gov. Greg Gianforte’s leadership, state budgets have kept state spending growth in line with population growth plus inflation. Why can’t local governments do the same? In fact, some are. Great Falls and Flathead County are examples of local governments that have kept budget growth either at or below population growth plus inflation over the last decade.
Fiscally conservative budgeting takes political courage. Montana taxpayers should hold their local officials accountable for excessive budget growth.
This column originally appeared in Lee Newspapers.