HELENA — Cuts proposed to balance Montana’s budget may save money in the short term but will cost the state and people in need much more in the long run, dozens of people told lawmakers on Wednesday.
The state needs to find $227 million over the next two years to balance the budget due to lower-than-expected revenues and a costly fire season.
Budget Director Dan Villa briefed the Legislative Finance Committee Wednesday on the proposed cuts that would be needed in the absence of other revenue. He told lawmakers that previous budget shortfalls had been handled by Republican governors with a combination of budget cuts and tax increases.
“There is a better way,” Villa said.
Proposed health department cuts that include eliminating optional Medicaid services and case management programs drew the most emotional testimony. Many urged lawmakers to consider a special session to raise revenues.
Becky Notch of Kalispell testified that her son Luka began receiving services when he was about 18 months old after being diagnosed with nonverbal autism. With early intervention services, including speech therapy and family support programs, Luka is now in first grade, reading and doing math and he spoke to the committee Wednesday.
Without such help, Notch testified, kids with developmental disabilities will be going to school without the ability to speak or behave well enough to sit in classes.
David Munson, director of Early Childhood Intervention in Billings, told lawmakers that investing about $4,000 in early intervention services for one child can save the state about $7,900 in annual special education spending for that child from age 3 to 19, Munson said.
If Montana ended its early intervention program, it would be the only state without such a program, Munson said.
Others who receive Medicaid case management, in-home or mental health services said the cuts would hurt their quality of life and end up costing the state more because they would require institutional services.
Travis Hoffman, an advocacy coordinator with Summit Independent Living in Missoula, told lawmakers that session after session, “we come here and we beg for the things that all of you … who don’t have disabilities, take for granted.”
Just because Medicaid considers some of the services optional, “they aren’t optional for us,” Hoffman said.
“Come up with ways to balance this budget on not solely cuts,” he told lawmakers.
The committee also heard about proposed cuts to other government services. The committee meeting continues Thursday.