Legislative subcommittees begin cutting millions to education and corrections

Bozeman Daily Chronicle – January 11, 2017

Over Democrats’ objections, legislative appropriations subcommittees have begun making millions of dollars of preliminary budget cuts to higher education, K-12 schools, corrections and other spending areas.

Republican budget leaders had announced plans to make these cuts as the starting point for the joint House-Senate Appropriations subcommittees as they begin their work of setting initial budgets for state government agencies.

Republicans, who control the House and Senate, have disagreed with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s plan to balance the budget Bullock has called for budget cuts, tax increases and fund transfers. Instead, Republicans are ruling out tax increases and looking to increase the $73.8 million in budget cuts recommend by Bullock to a total of $120.2 million in reductions in general funds and state special funds over the next two years.

Bullock’s budget director Dan Villa had no immediate comment, but his office late Tuesday began using social media to summarize the cuts.

State colleges and universities would face a combined $23 million budget cut for 2018 and 2019 fiscal years under reductions made by the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and earlier cuts totaling $13.2 million made in Bullock’s proposed budget.

Kevin McRae, a deputy commissioner of higher education and lobbyist for the University System, said such a cut “would have a significant impact on college and university campuses.”

“Education programs would be cut, while tuition prices would go up,” McRae said. “A $23 million budget hole is too big to fill entirely with tuition increases because middle-income Montanans could not afford the consecutive years of double-digit tuition price increases that would be needed to even partially fill the hole.”

“We can’t say at this time how far into the ‘double digits’ the tuition increases would need to be, but we are certain that a $23 million cut in state funding would adversely impact academic programs on all campuses,” McRae said. “It would mean reduced course sections, reduced scholarships, reduced educational offerings and opportunities, longer lines because of staff cuts, and a longer time to a college degree.” 

Tuition had been frozen the past four years for in-state students at Montana’s state colleges and universities, but Bullock didn’t include money to pay for another tuition freeze in his budget proposal.

McRae said the commissioner’s staff understands that the action taken today “is just a starting point,” and said the staff look forward to working with the subcommittee “to build a reasonable investment in higher education so students can graduate on time and get into the workforce.”

The Office of Public Instruction would see its proposed cuts increase slightly from $21.3 million recommended in Bullock’s budget to $23.94 million over the two years under the legislative committee action.

Dylan Klapmeier, federal relations director and media assistant for new state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, a Republican, said, “Superintendent Arntzen is dedicated to putting Montana students first and ensuring stability for our schools. She is very concerned about the impact that the governor’s proposed tax shift will have on local taxpayers and students.

“This is purely a cut to Program 9, which funds schools, not Program 6, which funds OPI operations so it will not mean a cut to OPI services or to schools, but it will be a tax shift to local taxpayers,” Klapmeier said. 

A summary sheet released by Villa’s office showed the Bozeman elementary schools would see a $656,712 reduction in state funds in 2018 and 2019, while the Bozeman high school would see a cut of $349,237 cut over the two years.

Rep. Don Jones, R-Billings, chairman of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, told the Chronicle late Tuesday, “These are starting points only. There will be a lot of work to develop the final budget.”

Another subcommittee approved a $3.4 million budget cut for the state Corrections Department over the next two years. Bullock’s budget had recommended a $1 million cut.

In response to an inquiry by the Chronicle, Corrections spokeswoman Judy Beck said, “The budget reductions will potentially put our staff at risk and have an impact on Montana community safety.”

She said the subcommittee did not identify where the agency should reduce its budget. While the committee action would not require prisoners to released prematurely, it’s a possibility that programs for inmates may be cut, but “without legislative guidance, we cannot say at this time,” Beck said.

Asked if probation and parole officers faced cuts under the budget reductions, Beck said, “This is a possibility. It is our hope that these reductions will not last throughout the session due to the risk to public safety.” She said correctional officers would not be cut.

Heather O’Loughlin, co-director of the left-leaning Montana Budget and Policy Center, took issue with the level of the cuts.

“While some cuts are inevitable, this is not the only way solve our economic challenges,” she said. “Montana needs a balanced approach — one that includes new revenue to meet today’s needs, start planning for our future, and make sure we are all pulling our weight.”

Bullock has proposed two measures to raise taxes on the wealthiest Montanans, but Republican leaders have lined up against them.

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