HELENA - Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said on Wednesday that despite being a fiscal conservative, he’s asking the Montana Legislature for a significant budget increase because his department needs more resources to keep up with public safety needs.
Knudsen opened the Montana Department of Justice’s presentation to a joint legislative budget subcommittee.
“Simply put, we cannot keep policing in Montana like it’s still 1995,” he told lawmakers.
The state’s executive branch has called for a big investment in the public safety budget for the next two years. DOJ is proposing a $299 million budget for the 2024-2025 biennium — an increase of $38 million, or 14%, from the last appropriation.
Knudsen said his department and other law enforcement agencies in the state are doing good work, but they’re under strain.
“Our population is increasing, drug crime is increasing, violent crime is rapidly increasing in Montana, and it’s time we recognize that,” he told MTN Wednesday. “We simply need some more resources.”
Much of the new funding would pay for additional staff. Knudsen is requesting a number of new investigators for DOJ’s Division of Criminal Investigation — including four to respond to human trafficking cases, three to address the rise in drug cases, and three major crimes investigators who assist local law enforcement on serious incidents.
The budget proposal would also support five new Montana Highway Patrol troopers, along with a 6% salary increase for current troopers.
Knudsen said he currently has only two investigators dedicated to human trafficking cases, but the number of investigations has skyrocketed in recent years. He said the department is also under pressure from the growing number of drug cases, with meth and fentanyl being among the most serious issues.
“There is absolutely no question we’re seeing an astronomical increase in drug trafficking into Montana,” he said. “That’s not just a function of us policing better and finding more of it.”
Knudsen’s budget request also includes $5 million for maintenance costs on an updated computer system for the Motor Vehicle Division, which he says will significantly improve wait times for customers.
The department has already started phasing the system in, and Knudsen said they’ve noticeably increased the number of customers served and reduced the number of people who don’t show up for an appointment.
The DOJ proposal is just part of a broader public safety push in Gov. Greg Gianforte’s budget plan.
For example, members of this budget subcommittee also heard testimony this week from the Montana Department of Corrections, about plans to invest about $200 million in improvements at the Montana State Prison.