Montana is in a severe budget crisis, with revenue shortfalls and a costly fire season leaving our state $227 million in the hole. It’s easy for ordinary residents not to be fully aware of this, or to dismiss it as an obscure spreadsheet problem for politicians in Helena, until the impacts start hitting close to home.
But when they do hit — and they will — the ripples will range from inconvenient to tragic unless our leaders find remedies. Those with the most to lose are our most vulnerable residents: elderly, lower income, those with mental health issues and disabilities, children. One lawmaker called it “literally a matter of life and death.”
The most recent discouraging news is that the state may not be able to afford a $120 million payment to schools this month. Other impacts could include reduced safety in jails, cuts to necessary social services for families and children across a wide spectrum, and slashed programs for fixed-income elderly residents.
Even if solutions are ironed out, the inescapable truth is that there will still be painful cuts to crucial services. The idea is to limit the pain and apportion it in the most reasonable ways possible. The process and decisions will be hard, but that’s why we voted our leaders into office. Simply playing the blame game won’t suffice.
Republicans say Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock should have been more proactive with reducing government spending and that he must now deal with the repercussions alone, pointing out that state law allows him to cut up to 10 percent of general fund expenditures.
Democrats counter that Republicans, as the majority party in budget discussions, knowingly put forward inflated revenue projections to avoid raising taxes, in turn passing the buck to the governor.
As is always the case, the truth isn’t so black and white. Everybody shares some blame. In the end, both Republicans and Democrats, begrudgingly or not, signed off on the budget we have today, as well as the GOP-introduced companion bill explicitly outlining the nature of triggered cuts, which means, for example, that nobody should be surprised that the Department of Health and Human Services is getting hit so hard.
But a grand display of political theater over the roots of the dilemma won’t make the looming consequences go away. Rather, it will only guarantee them, in their severest form, by preventing constructive, thoughtful discussion. Republicans are reluctant to hold a special session to outline a plan forward, leading to what news reports have called a “game of political chicken.”
It’s not a game, however, and at this stage, it doesn’t do much good to argue over whether poor planning, cynical politics or plain bad luck is more culpable. The end result is the same, and only one of those three factors is in officials’ control now: the politics.
Everybody should come to the negotiating table, to dissect the whole budget pie, not just wildfire costs. Bullock will have to put his signature on any decisions and ultimately answer to them. But the process to get there must include a chorus of voices from both sides of the aisle.
In calling for a special session, the Montana League of Cities and Towns said the proposed cuts would “cause irreparable harm to our economic future” and shift the financial burden to local governments and property taxpayers. Rep. Shane Morigeau of Missoula urged both Democrats and Republicans to “put your ego and politics aside when it comes to the betterment of Montana.”
“It is what it is at this point,” Morigeau added. “We need to get it fixed.”