Meals on Wheels fears GOP tax plan, deficit could lead to future program cuts

Program volunteer and Democratic candidate for Congress Grant Kier receives his route map Tuesday from Meals on Wheels nutrition manager Curt Hammond. The program fears its funding could be cut if Congress passes the proposed tax plan, increasing the deficit by $1.5 trillion. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With volunteers set to deliver Thanksgiving meals to hundreds of seniors across Missoula County, the agency behind the nutrition program fears its funding could fall to the wayside as Congress raises the debt to pay for corporate tax cuts.

On Tuesday, volunteers set out to deliver daily meals through the Meals on Wheels program at Missoula Aging Services. The effort distributes 100,000 meals a year to hundreds of local seniors and receives roughly one-third of its funding from the federal government.

That latter fact has many worried.

“The new tax reform proposal poses a threat to Meals on Wheels, which is considered discretionary funding,” said Debbie Lester, the chief financial officer at Missoula Aging Services. “We don’t think nutrition is discretionary.”

The U.S House has already passed its version of tax reform, a move the Congressional Budget Office projects would increase the national deficit by $1.7 trillion. That’s higher than the $1.5 trillion ceiling allowed by the special rules established by GOP lawmakers.

Missoula Aging Services, along with dozens of other local nonprofits, fears that Congress would begin to cut so-called discretionary programs to reduce the deficit or push its tax plan into law.

“We think hunger is a basic human need that we have to fill, so when the budget increases the deficit the way it stands to the next 10 years, that sets us up for sequestration over and over again,” said Lester. “To be constantly worried about that federal deficit and knowing that our program could be cut at any time, it’s difficult to work under those conditions.”

As proposed, the tax reform plan has emerged as a campaign wedge between freshman Rep. Greg Gianforte and the field of Democrats looking to take his seat in next year’s election.

Congressional candidate Grant Kier, who joined volunteers Tuesday in delivering meals, criticized the Republican tax plan as a corporate handout that would place the predictability of essential community services, such as Meals on Wheels, in jeopardy.

“We’re proposing to provide tax breaks to some of the wealthiest corporations in our country at huge debt levels, which is going to cripple future generations financially at the cost of predictability for essential programs,” Kier said. “Those programs really get to the core of what we’re tying to do to take care of one another in Montana.”

Community leaders came together with Missoula Aging Services earlier this year to celebrate the program’s volunteers. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Meals on Wheels program in Missoula County costs roughly $600,000 annually. Roughly $200,000 of that comes from federal funding.

Losing that funding would result in a waiting list for local seniors looking for food. Meals on Wheels currently has no waiting list.

“When people are talking about tax plans, it feels really abstract and different, but it’s important that people realize that our budgets and tax plans have very real implications every day for the lives of Montanans,” said Kier. “We should be helping and supporting the institutions in our community that are trying to take care of those who need it the most.”

The fear of federal sequestration looms over many involved in the Meals on Wheels program, including Curt Hammond, the program manager for nutrition.

In basic terms, he said, Meals on Wheels enables the elderly and those with disabilities to remain in their homes, living healthy and independent lives through proper nutrition. The program also provides a daily check-in, with food volunteers often being the only person many home-bound seniors see over the course of a day.

Hammond said the program’s oversight has helped save lives, including the time a retired physician made routine calls to the program’s clients. One gentleman didn’t sound right. It turns out he’d had a stroke and didn’t know it.

“Because our volunteer was able to identify that, we stepped in, got a hold of that person’s emergency contact and basically saved the gentleman’s life,” said Hammond. “Had he remained without any kind of care, he wouldn’t have survived, but he did survive because we were part of that man’s life. We do a lot more than deliver a meal.”

Gianforte’s spokesman couldn’t immediately be reached Tuesday for comment.