by William Skink
Something has been bothering me about how Montana’s state budget crisis has developed. There were questions about the accuracy of state revenue estimates in February when a report was released anticipating over 90 million more than predicted last fall. In May there were already some warning signs from state tax collections that revenue estimates were off.
In that article the burden of what to cut if revenue missed projections fell mainly legislators:
During this year’s legislative session, legislators decided which programs would be cut if the state didn’t bring in the revenue they projected. The legislation puts more of a burden on legislators, instead of the governor, to decide how cuts might be made since they are the ones who build the state’s budget each biennium. Senate Bill 261 establishes rules to make cuts when there isn’t enough money and how to save it when actual revenue is higher than projections.
Legislators spent the majority of the session deciding how to make up for a shortfall of $200 million in the last biennium. Senate Bill 261 was designed to prevent that from happening in 2018 and 2019 by creating new ways for the governor to respond to shortfalls more quickly and establishing an emergency savings account of sorts.
The bill had support from Democrats and Republicans and was signed by the governor on Monday. But Democrats remained critical of Republicans’ willingness to further cut essential programs and services instead of passing some of the governor’s tax proposals.
The potential to inflict pain on Montana’s most vulnerable was a bipartisan effort. I don’t recall the alarm going out during the legislative session about what would be axed if the revenues came in short and triggered the cuts hammered out in Helena and signed into law by the Governor. Instead, Democrats were complaining about not getting the tax increases they wanted, like the increase in the Tobacco tax.
What’s been gnawing at me as we prepare for these brutal cuts came into focus thanks to a comment from JC. The comment was in response to something Swede to me. Here is the exchange:
SWEDE: When it comes to “helping the poor” let’s just say that I’m way above the average Montanan.
What I find most interesting tho is the nature of the cuts. They always have to be directed toward the unfortunate and not anywhere else for the maximum effect.
Maybe we can get some news crew out on the streets jerking away some homeless guys sandwich.
JC: Do I detect a hint of compassion amidst the sarcasm?
Actually, I think that agency/dept. heads target the cuts at those populations they think will be most adversely impacted — and will raise the most agitation. The goal here being to force the Leg to come back and revisit the budget and funding mechanisms, so yeah “maximum effect”. Of course, if the gambit fails, then it is “the unfortunate” who will be made much more unfortunate.
If anybody would look at the nature of many of these cuts, they do several things, including: the loss of matching federal funds (so the cuts here are amplified); they force people needing care to discover it in jail or state institutions at a far greater cost to the state budget than community provided services; they exact costs directly upon communities through increased crime, family disruption, decreased productivity, etc.; and last but not least, the individuals impacted by the cuts lose what meager dignity and quality of life they have and are driven further into the despair of old age and disability, mental illness and addiction, irreparable felonious red sheeting, and suicide.
Of course, maybe this is the intended result. If so, it comes to our state, families and individuals at a greater cost than the provided services would have cost. But more so it seems to have been intentional, hidden austerity on the part of our governor and legislature, and the outcome is a game of chicken with the state’s most vulnerable in the crosshairs.
I think this comment gets at the heart of what’s going on.
So, Democrats failed to raise the alarm while the legislature was in session, and now, with drastic cuts looming, some Democrat supporters want those of us in the Non-Profit sector and the vulnerable clients we serve to make noise. At least that’s how Pete Talbot is describing a recent meeting of local Democrats:
Last night in Missoula, grim-faced area legislators talked to local Democrats about the budget’s repercussions and offered some solutions. It’s essential, they say, that a broad coalition of service providers — and their clients, and client families and friends — put pressure on legislators to raise revenue. That means Aging Services, Medicaid recipients, Children Advocacy Centers, foster care programs, hospice services, domestic violence shelters … it’s an exhaustive list of providers that help the most fragile and needy Montanans.
It will require a special session of the legislature, called by Gov. Bullock, to find additional revenue sources. I’m leery of this happening. Until Republican legislators start feeling the pain personally — reduced services to the grandchild with autism or grandmother in assisted living — they’re not likely to come back to the table. For many in need, it may come too late.
Was this the idea all along? Downplay the potential of facing cuts while the legislature was in session, let the fiscal time-bomb pass into law, then direct the resulting fear and worry when revenues fell short toward Republican State Legislators so the Governor can get his Tobacco tax in a special session?
I hope that wasn’t the plan. Because if it was it means the Democratic leadership in this state was just as willing to play political games with people’s lives as Republicans were.