By Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas and House Majority Leader Ron Ehli
There is a real tragedy of Gov. Steve Bullock’s deep cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services budget: He didn’t have to make them.
On multiple occasions Bullock could have sided with protecting Montana’s most vulnerable citizens who depend on help from government services for their daily lives. But he has so far shown minimal interest in doing so, and has put very little effort into finding better solutions.
In fact, the governor’s stubbornness has many legislators starting to think that he is using the funding of health services as a political stick to force unpopular permanent tax increases.
Across the board, the state budget was not increased by as much as Bullock would have liked during the 2017 Legislature — only by about 6 percent to keep up with inflation. Because the fact of the matter is that under a balanced budget, the money coming in needs to line up with the money going out. There were cuts to most every department. Notably, the Legislature made a point to recommend that DPHHS reductions be geared away from public services, and instead focused on trimming some of the bureaucracy from the agency’s $4 billion budget. (You read that right: $4 billion). The governor seems to be doing just the opposite.
Just like in a household, when there is a tight budget situation a certain amount of belt-tightening needs to happen. But there is absolutely no reason for Bullock to make the cuts to the neediest Montanans to the extent that he is.
To compound the problem, Bullock recently refused more than $30 million from Core Civic, the owners of a private prison in Shelby. In legislation passed during the November special session to allow the governor to negotiate with Core Civic, the Legislature specifically suggested that he use more than half of this money towards DPHHS to mitigate cuts. After six months of negotiating, Bullock walked away with noting. This was a senseless political decision and the public in Montana should see it just as it is.
There is some light beginning to shine on this terrible tragedy. State revenue has been increasing since the beginning of the year and projections continue to be positive. This trend is along the lines of what Republicans and the Legislative Fiscal Division had estimated when making decisions about the budget. And which Governor Bullock ignored when he prematurely triggered a $49 million cut to DPHHS. Had patience prevailed, some of that money would still be available.
We will continue to monitor state revenue projections and plan our recommendations accordingly. And we will continue to recommend cuts to Helena bureaucracy over cuts to Montanans who depend on state services. Ultimately it is the governor who needs to care about them more than he cares about his political agenda.
Rep. Ron Ehli, R-Ehli, is majority leader of the Montana House and former chairman of the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee. Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, is majority leader of the Montana Senate.