Missoula demonstrators decry cuts to education, senior services

Shouting “courage, not cuts,” a group of demonstrators gathered in downtown Missoula on Thursday night to urge state legislators to reconsider proposed cuts to the budget – cuts that could have far-reaching impacts on seniors and students. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Shouting “courage, not cuts,” a group of demonstrators gathered in downtown Missoula on Thursday night to urge state legislators to reconsider proposed cuts to the budget – cuts that could have far-reaching impacts on seniors and students.

The rally was timed to coincide with the Legislature’s transmittal break, giving student and senior advocates hope that the state’s elected leaders will come together to find budgetary solutions that don’t slash funding for higher education or services relied upon by the elderly.

As proposed, the Legislature looks to cut $23 million from the Montana University System and $93 million from the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

“Right now, those cuts are just numbers on a page, but in actuality, those are real services our seniors are going to lose, and they’re double-digit tuition increases college students could face,” said Sarah Howell. “We think there’s a better way.”

The Legislature, held by a Republican majority, has already panned a proposal to raise income taxes on high-wage earners, along with a measure to raise the consumption tax on wine. Other options remain on the table, including an increase in the gas tax.

“We think we could be making some tough decisions to raise revenue and balance the budget in a way that doesn’t impact our seniors and students,” said Howell. “The reality is, there’s a decent number of options. We just need the courage to make those decisions. I think everyone in Helena needs to dig deep and find the political will to do this.”

On Friday, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported that Gov. Steve Bullock believes the Montana Board of Regents would have to consider closing a state college campus to cover the $23 million cut proposed by the Legislature for the University System.

Braden Fitzgerald, the political action chair for the Associated Students at the University of Montana, said that if students had to cover the $23 million shortfall alone, it would result in a 25 percent tuition increase, or more than $1,000 per student per year.

That, he said, has students worried.

“If these cuts go through, that means tuition is going to go up,” said Fitzgerald. “That’s a lot for students who are working full-time jobs just to pay for a semester to college. If the Legislature wants to invest in Montana in general, education is the place to start, especially higher education.”

Mackenzie Lombardi, also an ASUM member, echoed those sentiments, saying the Legislature has done a poor job of funding public higher education over the years.

If tuition is increased to cover the shortfall, she said, many students would have to drop out, as the cost of education would move beyond the reach of low- and middle-income families.

“The $23 million cut the Legislature is proposing right now would decimate us,” said Lombardi. “Funding higher education is one of the best investments they can make. For every $1 they put in, they get a $3 return on investment. We think it’s the smart move and the right move.”

The cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services also concern the state’s seniors and those charged with their care.

Debbie Lester with Missoula Aging Services said the results would have devastating effects on a number of programs, from Medicaid to Alzheimer’s support and Meals on Wheels.

“The services we deliver to real people on the ground are meaningful,” Lester said. “Our seniors are trying to live independently at home. They’re trying to get good nutrition. They’re trying to navigate the long-term care system. All of this requires some help, and we can’t do it without DPHHS.”

Lester described Alzheimers as a growing epidemic that requires funding for support services and caregivers. She said more Medicaid waiver slots are needed, along with nutritional support.

The cost to feed a senior through the Meals on Wheels program for a year is $200. In comparison, Lester said, the cost to house a senior in a nursing home for a month is $6,000.

“These seniors, but for a home-delivered meal, could be eligible for a nursing home,” Lester said. “But we’re able to keep them in their home, independent and where they want to be. Without that meal, they’re subject to malnutrition, which means hospital stays, which means a nursing home. It’s a domino effect when we can’t provide these small, simple services that are so cost effective.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com