Great Falls Tribune – October 18, 2017
Nearly 50 people told their state lawmakers that $240 million in proposed cuts to the state budget would be devastating to services they either receive or provide to Montana’s needy and developmentally disabled.
Three Great Falls-area representatives and two senators took notes
during a 90-minute meeting Monday at Benefis Health System, telling audience members that they had been heard.
“I feel terrible, I feel awful,” Rep. Jean Price, D-Great Falls, told the crowd. ”I hope you’ll just have faith we will do the best we can with what we have.”
She added the state needed to do something to raise revenue.
Montana needs to cut $227 million over the next two years to balance its $10.3 billion budget because of lower than expected revenues and an expensive fire season.
The departments of Public Health and Human Services, education and corrections receive 85 percent of the appropriations from the general fund, meaning they would have the largest cuts.
Gov. Steve Bullock requested 10 percent cuts to state departments and is expected to call a special session in which legislators would be called back to Helena to discuss reductions.
GOP lawmakers have said the governor has the executive tools he needs to make the cuts.
The meeting in the Cameron Auditorium was sponsored by The Arc Montana and Parents Let’s Unite for Kids, also known as PLUK.
Other state legislators attending included Democratic Sen. Carlie Boland, GOP Sen. Ed Buttrey, Democratic Reps. Casey Schreiner and Tom Jacobson.
Mary Caferro, a Democratic state senator from Helena who works for The Arc, was one of the meeting co-organizers. She did not sit with the other lawmakers but gave a brief introduction.
She noted that some of the proposed cuts included diapers and cuts in support for teenage mothers.
Caferro said that cutting services was “not the place to start.”
Some lawmakers at Monday’s meeting said there were high-level talks going on now between the governor’s office and some legislators and that new revenue projections were coming out in November.
Buttrey said he was hopeful there would be more “optimistic” numbers released at that time.
The largest cut proposed is $105 million to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, which makes up about 46 percent of the total proposed reductions. Proposals include the elimination or reduction of optional Medicaid services and reduced Medicaid provider rates. It also calls for reducing or dropping programs that include targeted case management services, hospice service, early education and health improvement programs.
The Montana Budget and Policy Center says according to the DPHHS reduction plan the general fund cuts would bring the loss of $135 million in federal funds, for a total loss of $240 million.
One person in the audience said the state should consider ways to raise revenues.
“I would be willing to pay a great tax on beer, wine and gin and tonics if it would help with budget cuts,” she said.
City Commissioner Tracy Houck said she was concerned the state budget cuts would affect local governments and cities.
Sandi Hirsh, with Quality Life Concepts, said she was “horrified” by the proposed cuts. She said the governor had been presented with a petition signed by 22,000 people opposed to deep cuts.
“A majority of Montanans will pay taxes to pay for things they believe in,” she said.
Sister Johnelle Howanach told lawmakers that as a Christian nation there must be care for the most needy and most vulnerable.
She said it was more than about balance sheets.
“You are dealing with people’s lives, and there is nothing more sacred than that,” she said.
Boland told the audience that she heard them.
“I tell you I will do everything that I can,” she said. “I heard you loud and clear and will take your message back with me.”
Buttrey said it was time the state reviewed ineffective and wasteful programs. He said he did not want to do anything that would cut services.
Jacobson said it was not an issue that the state can tax its way out of.
He said lawmakers would have to make some “critical short-term decisions” and make a bipartisan effort for revenue enhancing.
Schreiner said he would not vote for cuts to programs because he knows how it affects people’s lives.
He said belts should not be tightened so much that it restricts blood flow.
Some of the lawmakers said Montana needs to adjust its budget and revenue streams as it can no longer rely on oil and gas revenues as it once did.
For more on the state budget, go to: http://balancedbudget.mt.gov/