Montana Voices: Legislators must protect students, seniors

By Heather O’Loughlin

The quality of life we enjoy in Montana is directly connected to the public investments we make in our communities – modern schools and quality education for our children, safe roads, updated water and sewer systems, and an affordable college education for our future workforce.

However, with the Montana legislative session halfway complete, legislative leaders have made deep and devastating cuts to the state budget that impede our state’s ability to continue to prosper and will impact some of our most vulnerable families and neighbors.

Heather O’Loughlin

Over the past several weeks, subcommittees in charge of the state budget have met to hear from Montanans across the state about the impact of these budget decisions. But our legislators are not listening.

As the budget stands today, state investments essential for seniors, families, students, and our most vulnerable families are at risk. The Department of Public Health and Human Services faces one of the deepest cuts in the budget totaling over $90 million cut in state and federal funds, including serious cuts to programs administering Medicaid benefits and other services to seniors and people with disabilities who need assistance staying in their own home or reside in nursing homes.

Investments to the Montana University System have been cut by $23 million, likely to result in double-digit tuition increases for Montana students and families. The legislature has cut funding within the Department of Military Affairs for regional hazardous materials response teams that conducting training and response exercises with local Montana communities. To be clear: These cuts will hurt our families and our communities, and legislators need to hear from their constituents that the cuts are unacceptable.

In this second half of the session, the Legislature can and should work to restore these cuts, but to do so, it must get serious about ensuring we have adequate revenue in the state. The Governor’s budget provides a balanced approach to current budgetary constraints, by including both spending cuts and common-sense measures to ensure we have adequate levels of revenue.

Unfortunately, key legislative leaders have indicated a dangerous unwillingness to accept this balanced approach and instead have imposed additional deep, unnecessary, and harmful cuts. Rather than closing tax loopholes and ensuring special interests and out-of-state corporations pay their fair share, these legislators seem ready to ask Montana’s hardworking families to pay more in tuition, Montana’s seniors and individuals with disabilities to go without critical services that make it possible to stay in their homes, and local governments and taxpayers to shoulder a greater share of the costs to ensure our communities are safe.

In fact, while the cuts already taken will have a devastating impact on our communities, these cuts may be just the tip of the iceberg. Last month, the Legislature’s staff released a report showing where we stand with revenue and projected spending, factoring in actions taken so far by the legislature. Considering the cuts already seen, we sit roughly $140 million below the goal of a $300 million ending fund balance. Unless legislators recognize the need for additional revenue, we should expect to see even further cuts.

When the Legislature returns from transmittal and resumes budget discussions, legislators will make important decisions about whom they represent: multinational corporations and the wealthiest 1 percent, or hardworking Montanans, local communities, and our most vulnerable neighbors.

Montanans are taking note and standing up for strong investments in our state, recently holding rallies in Missoula, Kalispell, and Great Falls. These rallies send a message to our elected officials during the legislative break that we stand with our fellow Montanans and communities who will be negatively impacted by these cuts.

There is still time to right these wrongs. The Legislature has 45 more days to ensure we have enough revenue in the state and restore the deep and potentially devastating cuts they have made to the budget. It is possible in the state of Montana to have a balanced budget, fund the services that help citizens and communities across the state, and leave a healthy ending fund balance.

Heather O’Loughlin is co-director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center. MBPC is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that provides in-depth research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues.